Nine years and one day after its first iteration was introduced in the Minnesota Legislature, the “Legacy Act” voter referendum was finally passed by both the House and the Senate on Thursday and will appear as a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. Along with choosing a president and U.S. senator, Minnesotans will now decide whether or not to raise the statewide sales tax 3/8 of a cent to provide approximately $276 million each year for a quarter-century on behalf of cleaner water, outdoor recreation, and arts and cultural programs.
At first glance, passage of the bill looks like an example of the DFL flexing its political muscle. While a majority of Republican legislators opposed the Legacy Act (42 nays to 28 yeas), nearly five out of six DFLers supported it (103 yeas to 21 nays). But looks are deceiving. If the DFLers had been more effective at exerting their legislative priorities, the Legacy Act itself wouldn’t even be necessary. Instead, those favoring increased funding for the laundry list of needs the bill is supposed to address have dramatized their lack of political courage and/or clout, first by bundling together diverse constituencies and interest groups, and then going to the voters rather than operating through the normal — and more appropriate — legislative channels.
The comments by a raft of liberal DFLers during yesterday’s debate on the Senate floor underscored this political reality. “I am fully aware that some members of the Legislature would prefer to just do this without a constitutional amendment,” said Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, the sponsor of the bill, and the first person to speak on it. “It probably would be better if we just went ahead and put nearly $300 million into water and conservation in Minnesota. But we simply haven’t done it, and that’s the problem. We know we should do it, we know we need to do it, but we haven’t. That’s why a constitutional amendment.”
Caveats and blunt explanations
After Pogemiller, over the course of nearly two hours of debate, not a single DFL senator who spoke in favor of the bill could avoid similar caveats. And those opposed explained why in blunt terms.
“This is not good tax policy. It is not good budgeting policy,” said Sen. Thomas Bakk, DFL-Cook, who just happens to be chair of the Senate Tax Committee. Bakk added that the sales tax mechanism in the bill was regressive — “it favors the rich at the expense of the poor” — by taking a proportionally greater toll on the lower-income people purchasing goods and services.
He then made a statement that was eye-opening both for its political ambition and brass-knuckle gamesmanship, saying that he had been approached by people who had heard he was considering a run for governor, who told him he’d be wise to change his position and support this bill; otherwise it would create political problems for him if and when he sought the DFL nomination. He added that he knew the bill was using sales taxes rather than income taxes as the funding mechanism “because the sales tax polls better. Are we so hungry for new revenue that we are actually able to compromise our core beliefs on fair taxation?” (The chair of the House Tax Committee, Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, likewise voted against the Legacy Act.)
“There is no question the areas [of need in the bill] are underfunded,” Bakk continued. “It makes it a pretty easy green vote; even easier when you can go home and say, ‘I let the people decide.’ But we need to consider the cumulative impact on the low-income residents of our state.
“This is the first volley,” Bakk said. “Soon we’re going to vote here to raise the gas tax — another regressive tax, and so propose to raise the metro sales tax again for transit. As your tax chair I am saying…we are making our tax system significantly — not a little bit, but significantly — more regressive than it is today…We get so hungry for the money that we are willing to take it however it is easiest to take it.”
Duck and hide
Not long after that, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, stood up. “It is a question of how we do it,” he said of securing the Legacy Act funding. “We use the excuse that the governor will veto it the other way, so we’ll do it this way [through a referendum]. But the constitution is meant for our structure of government — we need it for that, we need it to protect rights. But this is a budget issue…
“We’re supposed to deal with the governor,” Marty emphasized. “Pass something. If the governor vetoes it and the public agrees with us on this, they can vote him out of office. That’s the way the process is supposed to work. We don’t duck and hide things in the constitution so we can get around that.”
The last senator to speak in a floor debate that took nearly two hours was Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing. “Folks, unless we have the political courage to stand up and say that clean drinking water is important to 67 senators in the Minnesota Senate, and that we are going to increase taxes to do it, then we shouldn’t do this [Legacy Bill]….I feel that clean drinking water is important. I feel that making a place for kids to be able to go hunt and fish and recreate and go see a play is important, and I’m willing to raise taxes to do it. But I am not willing to do it through the constitution. Folks, we have abdicated our responsibility.”