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Gubernatorial election may say more about today’s Minnesotans than about the candidates

I applaud MinnPost’s continued efforts to dig into the policy particulars of our three main gubernatorial candidates. Tom Horner has been especially candid regarding his economic proposals, while Mark Dayton and (to a greater extent) Tom Emmer have been more reticent to lay it all out there.

Honestly, though, what interests me most about this race is already in plain view. It has less to do with any one specific policy — or the personalities of the combatants — than with what this election says about Minnesota’s larger ethos and trajectory. The devil may be in the details, but if ever there were a big-picture election in Minnesota, this is it.

It is no secret that Minnesota is facing a $5-7 billion shortfall in the next biennium. Though it is fair to blame our outgoing governor (as the Minnesota Constitution provides our exec with hefty powers), both branches of government (and both parties) must accept responsibility for failing to defuse this ticking fiscal time bomb. Sadly, we’ve been co-opted into a national atmosphere that equates healthy compromise with cowardice and surrender.

So here we are. Minnesota faces a severe shortfall in funding the many public services we rely on (education, health care, roads, police and fire departments). While it may seem this looming crisis will hamstring a first-term governor, I suspect the opposite will be true. It will empower him to chart a new course for the state.

A crisis, an opportunity
Policy practitioners, academics, wonks and the like refer to this as the emergence of a policy window — a critical moment when acute crisis creates opportunity for vast policy change.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq would have been politically untenable without the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, just as FDR would have been unable to enact Social Security (and other New Deal programs) without the specter of the Great Depression. We humans often fail to make moderate adjustments to mitigate emerging problems but accept dramatic change in response to acute crisis. For our next governor, “The Great Recession” and the interconnected state budget crisis present both challenges and opportunities.

Since World War II, Minnesota has been consistently (and fairly) characterized as a higher tax/higher service state. We historically look out for one another through healthy public institutions, functional public transportation/infrastructure, ample social services, relatively honest government, and businesses that value well-educated, innovative workers. Throughout the postwar years, some variant of this commitment was shared across party lines. The debate was about how government should help … not if it should.

This year’s gubernatorial election marks a departure from this distinctly Minnesotan political ethos. Sure, Dayton seems to be making a rather traditional argument for a progressive, higher service/higher tax state, and Horner emphasizes a renewed commitment to education while cutting other areas. Yet, for the first time in postwar history, we see strong sentiment for a truly low tax/minimal service state.

A broader anti-Washington mood
Clearly this is driven by a broader anti-Washington mood, epitomized by the Tea Party, personified in Tom Emmer, and illustrated by GOP billboards (“Don’t lose another job to South Dakota”) suggesting that Minnesotans would be better served if only we mirrored our western neighbor’s policies. South Dakota has no corporate income tax whatsoever.

Let’s set aside the unambiguous fact that South Dakota can only dream of the business assets of Minnesota (Minnesota has 21 Fortune 500 companies, South Dakota zip). Also, MinnPost’s recent analysis suggests that the tax burden placed on Minnesota businesses is not exactly onerous.

At the end of the day, Minnesotans must accept a mathematical reality: There is a sharp correlation between investment and outcome. This applies to the workplace, our families, our churches, and, yes, our state and its institutions. Low tax/high service states do not exist. Billions will not be saved from trimming the fat. These resources will only materialize by cutting services, raising revenue, or passing costs of services to other levels of government (or some combination thereof).

As we continue to use MinnPost and other reputable data-driven sources to explore policy details, let us not lose sight of the broader narrative of this important gubernatorial race. This election may end up saying more about who we are as Minnesotans than any in generations.

Zack Sullivan, Minneapolis, serves as political science faculty at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/08/2010 - 04:25 pm.

    I fear I must disagree. I’m not convinced that we’ve really changed our expectations of government. What we’ve done is bought a couple of decades of promises by snake oil salesmen who, in their earnest desire to save themselves from paying their fair share of the costs of state government, convinced many of the rest of us that we could still have exactly the state we want if we just made government more efficient by cutting taxes and forcing it to get by on far less.

    I know in my own life, when my income has been considerably reduced, I do, indeed, become more efficient. I consume MUCH less of everything and much LOWER QUALITY of everything. Indeed, if every citizen of Minnesota were living as efficiently as I am, we’d be in a much, much deeper recession, because no one would be buying much of anything.

    Certainly the quality of my life by a wide variety of measures is considerably lower than it once was (which I find easy enough to tolerate).

    But at a state level, when the “quality of life” of our state government is reduced (because we’ve bought the snake oil promise that we could starve the government of resources and NOTHING would change) the quality of life for all of us is considerably reduced.

    When the government doesn’t work, or doesn’t work properly, we are all made poorer in what must surely be a parallel to the “death by a thousand cuts” (the most noticeable of which is massive increases in property taxes).

    All of us are made poorer, that is, except those who have been selling us the snake oil. They’ve become even more fabulously wealthy, while paying a far lower percentage of their hourly income in taxes that the rest of us do!

    That question for me is, will a $6 billion dollar hangover be enough to wise us up about why the “low taxes” snake oil makes us feel good? It DOESN’T make us feel good because it’s bringing us wonderful health benefits? It makes us feel good because its intoxicating effects are equal to alcohol of about 120 proof.

    Are we really a bunch of political drunkards who will continue to buy the “low taxes” snake oil from the rich guys until we’re lying passed out in the gutter, or are we going to sober up, face the reality of how much hard work and treasure is already required to rebuild our state, buckle down and get to work doing what’s necessary?

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/09/2010 - 03:53 pm.

    I hope the new governor’s first recommendation to the legislature is to end the tax cuts for the wealthy that have cost our state so much.

    His second task, no less important, should be to call for amending the state’s constitution to make it easier to impeach a sitting governor who TECHNICALLY has violated no law when his/her policies are evidently and severely hurting the citizens the governor has sworn to protect.

  3. Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/10/2010 - 12:36 pm.


    I think that is a called a recall. Some states have that ability. California used it to remove Gray Davis from office. I agree that with you that it is a good idea.

    Though you don’t directly mention him, I expect that you are referring to our Governor Pawlenty. At the conclusion of the last legislative session, which was very contentious, Pawlenty had a 52% approval rating. A recall is not likely to overcome that level of popularity.

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