The 2015 session of the Legislature begins at a time of great opportunity for our state. Our economy is growing. Unemployment is below 4 percent. Our state’s budget is finally balanced, and instead of another deficit we have a projected $1 billion surplus. Our state is moving in the right direction.
Let’s not waste this historic opportunity — because there is more work to do.
Our success as a state has always been tied to expanding the chance for hardworking Minnesotans to succeed. But as most of us recognize, that promise is threatened by an economy that all too often is tilted in favor of the well-connected and big corporate interests.
Republicans know this is true and are saying the right words. Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, recently wrote that “citizens should define the scope of our work, not special interests.” (“We can all pitch in, and these 5 ideas are a start,” Jan. 8).
But actions speak louder than words.
The first bill Republicans introduced was a $250 million tax cut that largely benefits corporations and wealthy special interests. Their plan cuts income taxes for the owners of businesses, but offers not a dime of relief for the employees whose wages have stagnated.
Of course, we all want our Minnesota businesses to prosper. But helping the rich get richer at the expense of the middle class simply is not an effective strategy to grow Minnesota’s economy. Our top priority should be looking for ways to rebalance our economy in the interests of hardworking, middle-class families.
For example, post-high-school education must be more affordable to make it easier for our kids to succeed. Graduates shouldn’t have to go $30,000 in debt to get the education they need to find a good-paying job. Freezing tuition over the past two years — a top DFL priority — certainly helped, and we should continue it. But we need to look at other ideas, such as the proposal to offer free tuition at our state’s community and technical colleges. That would be a better use of our public resources than handouts to corporations.
At the other end of the spectrum, we know that investing in early-childhood education helps prepare our kids to succeed, which is how we reduce our persistent achievement gap and build the world’s best workforce. To that end, DFLers have a bill that would provide for free preschool for all Minnesota 4-year-olds.
We ought to make it easier for ordinary Minnesotans to put bread on the table, but also be home to spend time around the table with their families. Raising the minimum wage was a great start, but there’s more to do. Reducing child care costs and addressing workplace flexibility issues, such as earned sick leave, are the kinds of ideas we should be looking at this session.
Minnesotans also deserve to get to work, to school or to the grocery store as safely and efficiently as possible. Projections have shown that our state needs $6 billion over the next 10 years just to maintain our roads and bridges and reduce congestion. But because of their big corporate allies’ opposition to a real solution, Republicans are already waving the white flag of surrender. Their “plan” only invests enough new money to build either one bridge or about 30 miles of roads in the entire state — with no new money to maintain them. That’s not even a Band-Aid; it is a bridge to nowhere.
In light of all this, it is not at all surprising that the Republicans’ first substantive vote of the 2015 session was to hide from Minnesotans the identity of the big corporate donors who spent millions to get them elected. This past election saw unprecedented amounts of corporate campaign cash that was used to flood mailboxes and television screens with negative ads. And Minnesotans hated it. At the very least, the corporate big wigs who spent all that money should have the courage and decency to stand up for their beliefs publicly instead of cowering in dark rooms — and the Republicans should have the courage to demand that they do so.
Let’s not waste this opportunity. Let’s continue down the path of the last two years and show the nation that a state that prioritizes middle class and working families instead of elite corporate special interests can and will prosper. If the Republicans change course and choose the path that prioritizes hardworking Minnesotans, we’ll gladly work with them. But judging by their actions so far, corporate special interests may once again have the upper hand.
Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, is minority leader in the Minnesota House.