There’s never a good time, I suppose, to learn that one’s U.S. senator groped a sleeping woman while mugging for a camera. Still, it was particularly irritating to be interrupted with the news about U.S. Sen. Al Franken on Thursday just as the U.S. House was passing a mammoth tax bill that’s skewed against Minnesota and other high-tax/high-services states.
How’s an editorial writer supposed to summon readers to think high-minded tax policy thoughts when the day’s news is about other body parts?
That’s not a plea for pity — not entirely, anyway. It’s also a lament on behalf of the 250 people who crammed into the Minnetonka City Council chamber Wednesday night to hear from three DFLers who want to replace one of the architects of the House’s tax bill, five-term Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota’s Third Congressional District.
The big crowd groaned at the mention of the tax bill that Paulsen insists will “work for them rather than against them.” They cheered as DFL candidates Dean Phillips, Adam Jennings and Brian Santa Maria each vowed that he would vote “no” should such a bill come to him as a member of Congress.
That audience seemed aware that among its many flaws, the House bill’s elimination of the 104-year-old deduction for state and local taxes is a particular blow to Minnesota. And within Minnesota, it’s a body slam to the west-suburban Third District, where median household income in 2016 approached $85,000 and half of filers claimed that deduction. By a calculation cited on these pages by two metro county commissioners, the House bill would bring an average 6 percent federal tax increase to Hennepin County households with about that same income, $87,000.
That’s not just bad for those who would pay more. It would be bad for every Minnesotan. It would ramp up pressure on state and local governments to spend less on education, infrastructure, the social safety net and the rest of the things they do to help Minnesotans prosper.
It would push Minnesota to rely less on progressive income taxes and more on the sales and property taxes that are disproportionately hard on the poor — in other words, to pressure a state like Minnesota to operate more like Texas. That runs counter to more than two centuries of federalism, the idea that American states should be free to run their own financial ships and serve their people as they see fit.
It’s also shortsighted on the part of the feds. Minnesota and other high-tax states tend to be strong-economy states that contribute more to the feds than they get back each year. By one analysis, Minnesota is second only to Delaware as a net contributor to federal coffers. Asking Minnesotans to pay still more in federal taxes could damage Minnesota’s economy in a way that lessens that money flow over time.
Eleven Republican House members from New York, New Jersey or California saw how badly this bill would serve their high-tax/high-services home states and voted no on Thursday. Paulsen and Minnesota’s other two Republican members of Congress, Jason Lewis from the Second District and Tom Emmer from the Sixth, voted yes.
But will their constituents notice? By the time the vote was cast on Thursday, even the motivated attendees at Wednesday’s DFL forum in Minnetonka likely had become the slack-jawed consumers of the latest tidbits about Franken’s boorish behavior. Will the Third District notice, let alone care about, the House’s whopper of a tax bill?
“We live in an age of increasing accessibility of information,” an unperturbed Dean Phillips said when I reached him Thursday afternoon. “Surely people will know about Paulsen’s vote.”
Surely, if Phillips is his party’s candidate, he will see to it that they do. The businessman and scion of the family that built Phillips Distilling Co., Phillips had amassed an $800,000 war chest through this year’s third quarter. That’s well behind Paulsen’s $1.5 million, but well ahead of the other DFLers in the race.
Phillips is running strongly in one other respect. According to a poll earlier this month released by his campaign, he’s 4 percentage points ahead of Paulsen, 46-42 percent, in a hypothetical matchup. What’s more, 52 percent of those polled said they’d be less likely to vote for Paulsen if he voted for the Republican tax plan.
Numbers like that inspire a certain cool in a candidate. So does spending nearly a year in low-intensity campaigning, meeting and listening to people of all political stripes. Phillips can relate with confidence what he’s heard.
“What’s happening the last couple weeks, with the increasing exposure of abhorrent behavior on the part of so many men in powerful positions, it isn’t a distraction. It’s important. I’m so pleased to see so much courage on the part of people who have lived in fear for so long.
“When you’re running for office, there’s a lot to attend to. But we need to make time to hear, to listen carefully and let people speak, as women across the country are right now. That’s the spirit of representation. That needs to be elevated, and it needs to be acted on. That is what surely now will happen.”
The spirit of representation can move in sudden and unpredictable ways. But it is plainly afoot in this country, demanding a halt to the objectification, disrespect and mistreatment of women by predatory men.
And if the turnout in Minnetonka on Wednesday night is any indication, that spirit is also alarmed by a tax bill that’s skewed against this state. Those who seek to represent Minnesota are well-advised to pay heed to the spirit, in all its manifestations.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com. With this column, she commences a leave of absence to work on a book project. Look for her column to be resumed in 2018.