On the day House Republicans passed their signature $2 billion tax cut bill last week, they offered an amendment designed to trap the DFL minority: a gas tax increase similar to that supported by Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Democrats and seen as politically unpopular.
Democrats unanimously voted against the amendment. Nevertheless, that day, mailers from the Republican-aligned Minnesota Jobs Coalition showed up in mailboxes in several key DFL House districts, attacking them for pushing a gas tax increase. Democrats saw the mailers as a coordinated attack between Republicans at the Capitol and interest group allies. The Jobs Coalition and House Republicans denied they had worked in tandem.
Allegations about coordinated attacks are flying more frequently in both directions on the state and national levels, as laws governing political donations and coordination between political groups and outside allies grows increasingly murky.
While DFLers have regularly faced similar charges from Republicans of gaming the increasingly deregulated campaign finance system, Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday threatened to wield his veto pen against several GOP-backed campaign finance changes that he and DFL lawmakers said would undermine the disclosure of special interest spending to influence elections.
“It’d be a terrible direction for Minnesota,” Dayton said of the GOP measures, which are tucked into a much larger finance bill to fund numerous state operations. “We have a history of strong campaign finance protections.”
The specific GOP-backed provisions would effectively end campaign spending limits for statewide candidates, including those running for governor, constitutional officers and state legislative races. House Republicans also voted to allow campaigns to collect limitless numbers of donations from lobbyists and political action committees, and for an end to Minnesota’s public subsidies for campaigns.
“Do the citizens of Minnesota really want to see their tax dollars going to politicians’ campaigns?” said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, sponsor of the state government bill. She noted that DFLers in recent election cycles have received more political donations overall than have Republicans.
The growing looseness around campaign finance laws is attributed largely to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling now referred to as “Citizens United,” which held that First Amendment free speech rights prohibit the government from restricting political expenditures by such non-campaign groups as nonprofits, corporations and labor unions.
Dayton on Monday called Citizens United a “terrible decision.” The DFL also has allied groups, chief among them the Alliance for a Better Minnesota that have raised and spent money to help DFL candidates, including Dayton, outside the traditional campaign apparatus.
Issues of outside spending and the appearance of coordination were at play in last week’s dispute about the gas tax mailing.
Democrats, who unanimously voted “no” on the gas tax amendment, said the attacks are untrue and questioned whether it was coordinated with House Republicans.
“It’s pretty coincidental,” said Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, the target of a mailer. “The guy who used to run the [Minnesota Jobs Coalition] is now the guy who runs the [Republican] caucus,” she said, referring to Ben Golnik, who is executive director of the House Republican caucus but was chairman of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition when the group successfully helped the GOP take the House last year.
Republicans and the Jobs Coalition ridiculed the charge.
“Clearly Democrats are so worried about how their gas tax plan will take money out of the pockets of average Minnesotans that they are willing to make up wild accusations just to change the subject,” said House Republican caucus spokeswoman Susan Closmore.
The Jobs Coalition announced the anti-gas tax campaign about a month ago, directing it at six House and four Senate districts.
Hortman acknowledged past support for gas tax increases as a dedicated funding source for transportation, but said she has not publicly stated a position this year.
John Rouleau, a spokesman for the Jobs Coalition, said, “The reality is that when you look at that record [Hortman] has a long history of supporting raising taxes on hardworking Minnesotans including raising the gas tax.”
Hortman said she was bothered “that there’s some group trying to sway democracy in Minnesota and [that] doesn’t have to say where they get their money or how much they’re spending.”
The Jobs Coalition campaign includes mail, radio and digital advertising. Because it is defined by regulation as an issues “education” campaign, is not required to disclose its financial backers.
Asked to do so, Rouleau replied that the group is funded by “numerous citizens and organizations that are dedicated to furthering policies that lead to job creation and a better economic future for Minnesotans.”