Star Tribune

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker took aim at public workers, channeling conservative resentment over government workers not enduring their fair share of belt-tightening in tough times.

In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton targeted the well-heeled, reflecting liberal outcry over the wealthy not paying their fair share of taxes.

Both first-term governors effectively used the tactics of postrecession class warfare to win election, Dayton by 8,770 votes and Walker by a much more comfortable 6 percentage points.

"It's our moment,'' Walker told a blogger impersonating billionaire donor David Koch, echoing a Tea Party theme.

Union-endorsed Dayton invoked scripture in his State of the State speech: "To whomsoever much has been given, of him shall much be required."

The governor's proposed tax increase follows through on the biblical pledge.

The gubernatorial battle cries in these two neighboring Midwestern states could hardly be more different. And yet, in another sense, they're similar. Both leaders are steadfastly appeasing one end of the political spectrum while infuriating the other.

More moderate Minnesotans and Wisconsinites might be wondering where it will all end. The Minnesotans have more reason to be hopeful.

That Walker immediately went after public-worker benefits could not have been a shock to those who followed his campaign. Candidate Walker successfully tapped into growing private-sector anger over public-sector compensation, and now he's using his state's busted budget to deliver on his pledge.

His supporters should be pleased.

As corporate America deleveraged during the recession, many private-sector employees paid a steep price in pay and benefit cuts. The government reckoning has come more slowly, or not at all.

Most of us want our misery to have company. Forced to sacrifice, we want others to suffer, too, especially if our hard-earned dollars are paying their salaries, supporting their pensions and making their health care more affordable.

Too much midterm election analysis focused on the politics of health care reform and the repudiation of President Obama. Republicans took control of Wisconsin state government -- and the Minnesota Legislature -- in part because independently inclined voters sided with the GOP in this new form of economic class war.

Public-employee compensation is not a new political argument -- it simply became a more effective wedge issue when the economy tanked.

Many angry private-sector employees in Wisconsin, Minnesota and elsewhere were attracted to candidates promising to take on public unions.

Dayton narrowly and brilliantly avoided being swept away in that wave by rallying organized labor and the other end of the political spectrum with his "tax the rich'' campaign.

After Walker's victory, union leaders in Wisconsin no doubt understood that public sentiment was against them on the economic issues. They knew they'd have to sacrifice at least a pound or so of pay and benefit flesh.

Emboldened, Walker may have aided their cause by overreaching on restricting collective bargaining rights, looking like an angry king putting his dairyland serfs in their place. That, of course, led to some of the biggest protests in Madison since the Vietnam War.

The same public-private divisions exist in Minnesota. If just 4,400 voters had cast ballots for GOP nominee Tom Emmer instead of Dayton, our State Capitol would be a maroon-and-gold mirror of Madison these days.

That didn't happen, although much to the DFL's dismay, the Republicans took control of the Legislature, providing Minnesota with a balance of state power that doesn't exist in Wisconsin.

Yes, Dayton proposed a predictable tax-the-rich budget, and you can expect the GOP's upcoming budget proposal to look much like a Tim Pawlenty production.

But those Minnesotans who expect their elected officials to find common ground for common good have reason to hope that balanced government will lead to a balanced budget -- and one that will position Minnesota for a better economic future while Wisconsin remains a political circus and an economic also-ran.

Here's another reason for optimism: Dayton isn't Walker, and the difference is more than ideology. Walker is 43, a rising star in the Republican Party who seems to thrive on the kind of attention his union war has attracted. He's both ambitious and, it appears, uncompromising.

Dayton, 64, is reserved, has already served as state auditor and U.S. Senator, and the governorship could be his last elected office. He also prefers serious policy discussions to picking high-profile fights.

Both men appear to be driven by strong convictions, but Dayton has revealed a refreshing willingness to work with those across the aisle. Consider his support for alternative teacher licensing and research and development tax credits for business.

There are also signs that Republican legislators are looking into Minnesota's $5 billion deficit abyss and seeing that their no-new-taxes campaign rhetoric is impractical. GOP legislators didn't show that independent streak under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Wisconsinites shouldn't expect to see it emerge anytime soon in their Legislature.

None of this means that the class battle is over in Minnesota. Far from it.

But as the Star Tribune reported recently, Walker's efforts to force his state's public workers to contribute more to cover their pension and health care costs, if successful, would merely put Wisconsin on par with Minnesota, where state workers already pay 5 to 6 percent of their salaries into their pensions (an issue that is not collectively bargained here) and pay more for health care than the 12 percent figure Walker proposes.

Nevertheless, the Dayton budget calls for a 6 percent cut in public workforce through layoffs and attrition over two years, while a GOP bill would cut 15 percent over four years. There's more shared sacrifice ahead for the state's public sector.

Given the fundamental budget challenges facing this state and the federal government, that's likely true for all of us.

But Minnesotans looking to the east in fear should breathe a little easier: Things are worse in Wisconsin.

Scott Gillespie is the Star Tribune's editorial page editor.