Latest gubernatorial debate: Facts fly, but they need to be checked

The guv candidates were in Nisswa Tuesday for a generally civil but not all that substantive debate sponsored by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. If you are so motivated, you can watch the whole hour here, via The Uptake.

I didn’t hear any major new facts or arguments, but I’ll offer a notes and comments and transcribe a soundbite or two (and I’ll try to follow up on a factual question or two in subsequent posts).

DFL nominee Mark Dayton continues to be the most factual, substantive of the three, this is not only, as I have mentioned before, because he has put out a more concrete budget proposal than his opponents, but also because he seems drawn to facts and statistics that he has memorized rather than to grand thematic statements, which his opponents favor.

For example, under obvious pressure given his opponents’ arguments and the Chamber audience to talk about cutting taxes to stimulate the state economy, Dayton cited an Ernst and Young study that found Minnesota to have the 15th lowest business tax rate in the nation. One suspects there’s more to that statistic, and I will try to follow up.

Dayton also tries to use logic to put his opponents on the spot, although they seldom respond. For example, if low taxes are the key to prosperity, how do they explain why Minnesota was among the most prosperous of states over all in recent decades despite having one of the higher tax climates? And why, since the last two big changes in the tax structure in 1998 and 2002 were tax cuts, is Minnesota not prospering more than ever? Neither opponent responded to these points.

Republican Tom Emmer continues to be more thematic and less specific. For example, he says Minnesota needs to abandon the “model of government” that it has followed for “several decades.” And that model, says Emmer, is this:

“Grow government, and when government runs out of money go back to the hardworking men and women of Minnesota and ask them to pay more.”

He continues to imply that taxes need to be lower, but also “stable” and “predictable,” and that state government needs to spend perhaps two-thirds as much as it does, without specifying how he would cut it. He does this by mentioning (he mentions this pretty much every time I hear him) that Colorado has about the same population and geographical area as Minnesota, but its state government spends $40 billion compared to $60 billion in Minnesota.

Emmer has said in the past that he is talking about reforming and reinventing government to make it more efficient, not cutting actual government services.

That provided Dayton with one of his factoids. He said that the elimination of all state employees would produce total savings equal to about two-thirds of the projected $6 billion deficit that the next governor will face. Again, Emmer did not respond specifically, but thematically continues to argue that his vision of a leaner and more business-friendly government will stimulate job creation and prosperity that will help balance the budget.

Independence Party nominee Tom Horner emphasizes his own businessman credentials: “I’ve run a business. I’ve had to meet a payroll, I’ve had to create jobs.” And continues to say that to get the amount of revenue Dayton projects from higher taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans will amount to “a doubling of the tax rate.” That’s another area that needs a fact check. He told Dayton: “The kind of tax increases you’re proposing are job killers.”

Horner has been outlining, but not yet specifying, a combination of tax cuts (remove the sales tax on capital equipment purchases, he said in Nisswa) and tax increases (broaden the sales tax to areas that are now exempt, like clothing and personal services) that he says would net out at an overall increase in state revenue to help balance the budget but be so cleverly crafted to stimulate the economy that they will “make Minnesota the job Mecca of our country.”

Those possibilities cannot be fairly assessed until he provides more details.

Horner is anxious to suggest that certain things that need to be done cannot be done either by a Republican or a Democrat because they offend party dogma. For example, he said, no Republican can ever suggest raising any tax, so the kind of tax reform he wants to propose is impossible, since it involves a balance of tax increases and tax cuts.

All three candidates want to be education governors and, since they were talking to the Chamber, put it in terms of creating a job-ready workforce.

Dayton repeated another of his factoids to challenge the Republican theme that during the Pawlenty years education has been spared from cuts. Dayton says that if the figures are adjusted for both inflation and the increase in student population, it amounts to a per pupil cut of $1,300. Another fact check needed.

Dayton wants to increase education spending, starting with paying back the money the state withheld from school districts (the “shift”) in order to balance the last budget. “That’s the other side of the coin from the tax question,” Dayton said. Without tax hikes such as he proposes, “How are we going to make these investments?”

Emmer said that Minnesotans were tired of finger-pointing, such as Dayton was doing in arguing that schools funding has declined under Pawlenty. But that didn’t stop him from pointing his finger at Education Minnesota, the big teachers’ union.

Emmer: “Senator, if dollars were the answer we would not have a 60 percent dropout rate in the Minneapolis schools [fact-check needed on that one for sure] and those kids would be succeeding in closing the achievement gap. And it’s not happening…

“The issue is not dollars, the issue is the union is standing in the way of any real reform in the state. Senator, if you follow the path that the union that just endorsed you wants you to follow, we will not we will not get alternative teacher licensure, we will not get the accountability measures that we must have and we’ve gotta have pay for performance in some fashion. Where else in our society does someone get to keep their job simply because they’ve been there the longest?”

Horner also criticized Education Minnesota for standing in the way of needed reforms, and he got kinda Zen about education (“We need to start with the question not how much, but what for; we need to look at Minnesota as a seamless system, cradle to grave.”) But he also used the labor management divide within education as another opportunity to argue for a non-DFL non-Repub governor:

“If you have a dispute between two warring parties, you don’t bring in a mediator who is vested in one side or the other, you bring in someone who can build bridges, who has the experience, who can say this is how we can build consensus, this is our common ground, this is how we move forward.”

Blithe spirits
Emmer took umbrage at one thing Dayton said. Dayton accused his opponents of talking “blithely” about how they would balance the budget. When his next turn came, Emmer, suggesting that he has big ideas for making government more efficient and incentivizing business to create new jobs, said to Dayton: “it’s not blithely talking about it.”

That was the opening for Dayton to make one of his favorite points. Dayton: “I’ll drop the word ‘blithely’ when you spell out the $6 billion that you are gonna save, in real dollars, real world terms, not a bunch of words like ‘redesign’ or ‘reform.’ Then I’ll be glad to drop the word.”

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by frank watson on 08/18/2010 - 11:37 am.

    I just read in the paper today that Minnesota students, once again, scored the highest ACT scores in the country. I guess Tim Pawlenty and the Republicans have really destroyed Minnesota educational system the past 8 years.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/18/2010 - 12:06 pm.

    ACT scores are not a measure of a State’s educational system.
    On the coasts, the top students are more likely to take the SAT than the ACT (colleges there prefer it).
    There are other differences, such as socio/economic variables that also bias the score in favor of homogeneous populations such as Minnesota.

    And no one has said that Minnesota’s educational system has been destroyed — just that cuts in courses available and increases in class sizes will catch up with us sooner or later.

  3. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 08/18/2010 - 12:16 pm.

    I am not surprised Dayton has the facts to back up his claims, while the other two just rumble along with generalities and refuse to give any details of their budget plans. Emmer has still not explained where he plans to find $6 billion in reorganization, elimination of agencies, and cutting. Just bluster.
    I also particularly pleased that Dayton challenged the other two to explain how low taxes are the key to prosperity, when we can see evidence) that tax cuts do not produce prosperity and in earlier decades, when Minnesota was among the most prosperous of states despite having one of the higher taxes.I think neither Emmer nor Horner responded because they can’t.

  4. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 08/18/2010 - 12:18 pm.


    The ACT test is taken only by college bound students — not regular high school grads or trade-school-bound students. What it says is: Minnesota’s best are the best of the best. However, it doesn’t address the progress of tens of thousands of students who are not college bound. I think most educators will tell you that more and more of those students are not succeeding in school.

    Additionally, the reason our best of the best have done so well is that I would guess most of them are from school districts with a rich property tax base and the districts just cost shifted the money it takes for a good school from the progressive state-paid income taxes to a more regressive property tax, even though most of them didn’t like to.

    To give Gov. Pawlenty once single ounce of credit would be to essentially ignore every fact regarding education except for our students ACT test scores.

  5. Submitted by Ross Williams on 08/18/2010 - 12:35 pm.

    The SAT is pretty universal, but who takes the ACT?

    Horner is running a completely negative campaign. His only reason anyone should vote for him is that he is not a Democrat like Dayton and that he is no longer a Republican like Emmer. He nicely fits the media’s narrative that the two parties represent the “extremes” of political thought in the state. He may not have the support of many voters, but he has the reporters and media moguls that count.

  6. Submitted by Laura Benson on 08/18/2010 - 12:45 pm.

    I’m about 90% sure that is students that live in MN, not students that attend MN public schools. Which isn’t to say we don’t have a lot of good ones, we do, but there is a pretty massive disparity between the great public schools in this state, and the lousy ones.

  7. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/18/2010 - 12:46 pm.

    And Frank, I guess those lazy, money-grabbing teachers who are doing more with less, just don’t deserve any kind of union to keep their salaries and pensions intact.

    Also want to add a comment about the tone used by the participants: I missed out on just who was talking when I first tuned in to the debate, but noticed that one of the participants had a particulary strident, angry tone. No surprise that that person turned out to be Emmer. He follows the Rush Limbaugh program, and not only in his opinioons, but in his delivery. Not what Minnesota needs!

  8. Submitted by Brian Simon on 08/18/2010 - 12:57 pm.

    Frank Watson – I don’t think the report said what you think it said. At least, according to the Pi Press article I read ( ), the conclusion you reach is not supported by the underlying data. From pipress:

    “Minnesota came out on top in 2010 among states where more than half of grads took the college-readiness exam. … The average composite score was 22.9, up from 22.7 last year.”

    “About two-thirds of Minnesota graduates will need remedial help in at least one subject, most often science.”

    So, great news for MN having high overall achievement, among the kids that do take the test. However, we aren’t able to draw conclusions about the 30% of graduates who don’t take the test, or the unknown number of kids who drop out of school. Secondly, even among kids who do take the test, we don’t know which were educated in public schools & which were not – so neither Education Minnesota nor the Pawlenty admin can rightfully claim credit for these numbers, based on the data we have. Thirdly, and most significantly, we still have a long way to go, if 2/3 of MN graduates require remedial help after graduating.

  9. Submitted by Lora Jones on 08/18/2010 - 01:00 pm.

    The ACT is a bad metric. 70% of, self-selecting, Juniors take the test. Drop-outs have largely dropped out by then, and even with that, the score being crowed about is 63% — solid C level.

    Also, because these are Juniors, and the worst effects and cuts arising from T-Paw’s NNT insanity are just being implemented, they’re all probably getting out just in time. 10 years ago when these kids were learning to read, etc. was pre-T-Paw days

  10. Submitted by Blaise Murphy on 08/18/2010 - 01:21 pm.

    This is the second time that I’ve heard Rep. Emmer say that the state budget is $60 billion. The first time I heard him say this was primary election night on MPR. Our state budget is approximately $30.7 billion over 2 years, or about $15 billion per year. Am I missing something? See link:

    Rep. Emmer has been in the State House for 6 years. He has participated in budget making 3 times since our budget is done every two years. Yet, he is claiming that our budget is $60 billion(per year??).

    Please correct me if I am wrong.

  11. Submitted by Colin Lee on 08/18/2010 - 01:27 pm.

    Frank, I wasn’t aware Tim Pawlenty and MN Republicans were in any tactical position to write state education policy.

  12. Submitted by Tim Larson on 08/18/2010 - 01:44 pm.

    Blaise, Look a little farther to the right on the link you posted. Your looking at just the General Fund. With all funds its closer to 60 billion

  13. Submitted by David Wintheiser on 08/18/2010 - 01:51 pm.

    Emmer’s number is almost certainly coming from a study released a couple of years back by America’s Promise Alliance, an education group founded, among others, by Colin Powell. In the 2008 study, Minneapolis was noted as having a graduation rate in the neighborhood of 40%.

    At the time, Minneapolis public school officials disputed the study, arguing that it didn’t account for students transitioning to charter schools or other public schools outside the district who went on to graduate — Minneapolis’s own study touted a 67% graduation rate.

    (Started with this NPR NewsQ story –

  14. Submitted by Blaise Murphy on 08/18/2010 - 02:00 pm.

    thanks tim. Of the other 30 Billion not accounted for in the general fund, 31.1 % of it comes from the federal government. I assume there is no discretion as to how this money is spent at the state level. So, wouldn’t it be more accurate to take that amount out of the total $60 billion?

  15. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 08/18/2010 - 02:05 pm.

    Blaise – You’re wrong the budget is a bi-annual at over 30B per year but it is a fiscal 6/30 year end so you will see something like 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 on any report heading. See page four of the PDF.

  16. Submitted by Tom Miller on 08/18/2010 - 03:18 pm.

    Colin Lee,

    Minnesota education policy is completely in the control of the governor in power. He appoints the Commissioner of Education, and ensures that the commissioner carries out the governor’s wishes. The education policies of the governor are those of his party; for the next few month, this is Governor Pawlenty and the Republican Party.

    Minnesota is the only state in the union without an elected or representative statewide school board or education commission. Education policy in our state is bound tightly to politics, and not directly accountable to Minnesota citizens.

  17. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 08/18/2010 - 04:03 pm.

    The complaint about education isn’t that everything we do has failed. I don’t think anyone claims Pawlenty has completely destroyed the public schools. It’s more a matter of Minnesota schools formerly being near the top by any measure, and now we sometimes are at the top, and sometimes not, and the direction is wrong. High ACT scores are a good thing, whatever the subset of students taking it, but the achievement gap is a serious problem, no matter how it’s spun. So OK, we can dispute whether the achievement gap shows teachers shouldn’t be allowed to form unions, or whether the schools are being starved of resources. Let’s at least acknowledge the basic facts that some things are still working well, but we’ve lost a lot of ground.

  18. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/18/2010 - 04:48 pm.

    While there are many books on the years in which workers had to fight (and sometimes die) in order to carry out their right to organize, I have not seen a comprehensive history of the organized, national effort to kill unions that started with Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers.

    Un-unionized workers are at the mercy of such employers as Mr. Blankenship, the owner in whose mines so many have died in accidents that could have been prevented with better safety practices. Teachers don’t generally face physical danger, but without unions would most certainly be underpaid and subject to being fired at the whim of a supervisor.

    For at least some information on the “fathers” of modern anti-union/anti-worker activity in the U.S., you can search something like “anti-union movement.”

  19. Submitted by James Hamilton on 08/18/2010 - 04:52 pm.

    Re: ACT scores.

    Minnesota does not require that high school students take the ACT. Those who do obviously are considering attending a college which requires the exam. Minnesota community colleges do not.

    “Because some states mandate ACTS but others don’t, state-to-state score comparisons can be misleading. States requiring all students to take the ACT typically see average scores go down, at least initially.”

  20. Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 08/18/2010 - 05:05 pm.

    Re: Minneapolis public school dropout rate. It’s nowhere near 60%, according to the district web site:

    In fact, the city-wide graduation rate has been improving the past six years — from ~57% to ~76%. Even when the rate is segmented by race, none approach a 60% dropout rate.

  21. Submitted by James Hamilton on 08/18/2010 - 05:22 pm.

    Number crunchers can find details on Minnesota’s budget, revenues and sources here.

    Federal funds account for 34.6% of our revenue, or roughly $20 billion. Those funds typically may be spent only in the areas for which the grants were made. If we take that money, we generally have to add some of our own to the pot. (Health and Human Services, for example, acount for 42.4% of our current budget, the vast majority of which is paid for with federal dollars. Despite that, the state share is subtantial in this and many other areas.)

    Sales taxes account for another 15.2% and personal income taxes another 25%. Revenues from statewide income tax (2.6%),gasoline and special fuels taxes (2.8%) and motor vehicle taxes (sales and licensing – 1.8% and 1.4% respectively) all exceed revenues from corporate income tax (2%). This doesn’t indicate to me that we need to reduce corporate tax rates in Minnesota. I’d be more interested in reading why they account for such a small percentage of total revenue.

    I invite Mr. Emmer or one of his representatives to tell us precisely where in the budget there is room for the kind of cuts the candidate says can be made, whether in tax rates or expenditures. Truthfully, I can’t see it without declining to participate in many of the federally funded entitlements under health and human services, e.g., Medicaid (remember who’s paying for those beds in the nursing homes), MFIP (Minnesota Family Investment Plan aka TANIFF aka “Welfare”, where benefits have been frozen since 1986 – yes, 24 years!).

    Another notch can be cut in any belt, and there’s room in ours. But a belt also can be used as a tourniquet and, when used improperly, kill the patient.

  22. Submitted by James Hamilton on 08/18/2010 - 06:02 pm.

    Is education in Minnesota in trouble? It is if my encounters with the St. Paul district are a fair barometer.

    There, I saw children lagging far behind but who could not get the help they needed unless and until they were many grades behind their peers. From my perspective, it was a question of waiting until they’d gone down for the third time before throwing them a rope. Some say it’s a lack of funds. Perhaps. I can’t claim to understand the budget and the many holes through which the money drains.

    But it’s also the teachers, the administrators, and the system which has arisen over the decades. Not all teachers, not all administrators are to blame. But there are those teachers who refuse to use the resources available to them that would permit them to spend their time with students, preferring instead to perform mundane clerical chores that could be handled by parent volunteers, of which there were many in my son’s school.

    There are those who insist upon being called and paid as professionals but scrupulously watch both the clock and the work rules negotiated by their union.

    There are administrators too concerned with keeping the peace and their own advancement and not concerned enough about what occurs in their schools. There are those who stand fast on policies which require students to fail completely before qualifying for the help they need, blaming their inability to act on budgets.

    Who else? Parents, many of us. It’s not considered polite to speak about it, but there are parents who simply don’t give a damn about their children’s attendance and performance at school. I’ve seen it; I can’t speak to its extent, but I’ve anecdotes galore: the young student who graduated from 8th grade at the top of his class, with no family members in attendance; the 2nd grade student removed from school for violent behavior and abusive language picked up from pornography seen at home; the many children who’d never actually had anyone read to them, much less owned a book.

    For my money, it’s time to do at least two things.

    First, bend the salary curve, so that entry level teachers earn enough to attract more to teaching, a very hard job in which a first year teacher earns roughly 75% of the $42,600 we pay a first year mail carrier.

    That will cost more money, because current teachers certainly aren’t going to take less now or later in their careers. Good teachers are worth it.

    The second thing that needs doing, in my mind, is to restructure the relationship between teachers and districts. That may mean modifying tenure, creating effective incentives for teachers to do more than wait out the clock each week, or cherry pick their duties.

  23. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/18/2010 - 09:03 pm.

    My goodness, where to start?

    I guess I’ll begin with what Eric has noted – a fondness on the part of Mr. Emmer for making comparisons between Minnesota and Colorado. I lived in the suburban Front Range of Colorado for 12 years before moving to Minneapolis last year to be a Grandpa. While in Colorado, I served in local government for 6 years as a citizen planning commissioner and housing commissioner.

    Colorado’s state government spends about 2/3 of Minnesota’s state government (assuming Mr. Emmer’s figures to be correct) in large part because the right wing in Colorado – Michele Bachmann has nothing on Tom Tancredo, or on a Colorado Springs zealot named Douglas Bruce – managed to get an amendment to the state constitution passed (an ill-advised TABOR Amendment [“TABOR” for Taxpayer Bill of Rights”]) that essentially takes budget-fixing out of the hands of the legislature altogether. New taxes go to a popular vote, and since no one likes to pay taxes, the power of the purse is effectively in the hands of whoever can put together the most persuasive television advertising. The result has been that virtually every department of Colorado state (and local) government has been financially strangled. Higher education, in particular, has had to bear the brunt of a seemingly unending series of budget cuts. Unlike Minnesota, where the state’s income seems, based on the numbers here in the comments, to rely on a fairly diverse set of revenue streams, Colorado relies primarily on sales tax revenue.

    The Gallagher Amendment to the Colorado State Constitution artificially holds residential property taxes to a very low rate, which not only limits revenue, but also encourages the building of McMansions up and down the Front Range, since they won’t be taxed based on their actual value, but on a ratio established by the amendment. Residential development virtually never pays for the services it requires, so the effect is to increase costs for cities and counties, while at the same time holding down revenue from those same developments that create the increased costs.

    Income taxes are much lower than they are here, and, as a certified Old Person, I can vouch for the fact that citizens over age 55 whose primary source of income is a “retirement benefit” rather than earned wages don’t have to pay state income taxes on the first $20,000 of that income. As far as I can tell, this age-related perk is entirely undeserved, though I was happy to take advantage of it.

    Food costs substantially more on the Front Range than it does here, and housing costs are considerably higher. The modest house I bought in Minneapolis last year would sell for 40 to 50 percent more in metro Denver than what I paid for it here, and since rates of pay in Colorado for most lines of work, from teaching to retail to construction, are only marginally higher than they are here, finding affordable housing is a considerable problem up and down the I-25 corridor from Pueblo at the south end, through Denver to Fort Collins in the north. About 80 percent of the state’s population lives within 25 miles of I-25.

    In short, Colorado IS a “low-tax” state compared to Minnesota. My property taxes on similar property are higher here than in Colorado, and my income taxes are MUCH higher here than they were in Colorado for exactly the same income.

    But there ain’t no free lunch, and if you only pay 2/3 of the taxes, you basically get about 2/3 of the benefits. Colorado roads are in lousy shape, as are the schools, especially in rural areas. The state’s absolute dependence upon sales tax revenue allows it to avoid political conflict over higher income and property taxes to some degree, but it also guarantees that communities fight like cats and dogs over any commercial development that holds the promise of tax revenue, especially sales tax revenue. Moreover, the reliance on sales tax dollars means Colorado has no control over its own revenue – when the economy goes south, so does the state’s revenue, and with it, the county and local revenue as well.

    The situation has become so dire that substantial numbers of Colorado’s Republicans – not just the usual political class, but business leaders, as well – have publicly had second thoughts about the TABOR Amendment, and it may well be repealed within 5 years. Despite far fewer public services, far smaller government, and far lower spending than Minnesota (all things that Mr. Emmer suggests would solve most of our budgetary problems here), Colorado is facing the same sort of budget disaster that the new Governor and legislature will have to deal with in Minnesota. The primary difference is that Colorado’s budget is not biennial, and has to be balanced annually. I’d argue that Colorado’s tax structure is not a model we want to emulate here in Minnesota.

    In the meantime, yes, there are numerous assertions by gubernatorial candidates that need to be fact-checked.

  24. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 08/18/2010 - 09:04 pm.

    One big piece of slight of hand in the Colorado/Minnesota comparison is the focus exclusively on state spending, instead of state plus local. Given that the two states allocate responsibility between the levels of government differently, that makes for an apples-and-oranges comparison. Adding in the local spending dramatically decreases the gap between Minnesota and Colorado.

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