After 24 years, Republican Sen. Steve Dille will offer his brand of ‘Capitol context’ for the last time

In the midst of a sometimes inflammatory debate about the DFL’s budget-balancing bill earlier this week, Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, rose and spoke quietly.

Many of his Republican colleagues had talked of how the DFL’s efforts to raise taxes on Minnesota’s highest-paid people would be a job killer, of how a tax increase would push Minnesotans to pack up and leave for low-tax states.

“We should put this in context,” Dille said quietly. He went on to say that there are many states with lower taxes than Minnesota, but in none of those states do people have higher incomes. He suggested that legislators should be more concerned with “what people have left in their pockets” than what they’re taxed. Minnesotans have far more money left in their pockets after taxes, than people in low-tax states such as South Dakota and Mississippi.

When the debate was over, Dille voted with his caucus and against the DFL bill that was eventually vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

At odds with party on taxation levels
But on Wednesday, Dille still was saying that the state needs to raise more revenue, if not this year, surely next.

Sen. Steve Dille
Sen. Steve Dille

“I don’t support the position that we’re over-taxed or over-regulated,” said Dille, a retired veterinarian who still farms 640 acres. “My own preference is that we [state politicians] would be more a cheerleader for our state, that it is a good place to live and have a business. But that’s just my position.”

Dille has thought a lot about this whole business of taxes and quality of life. There’s little he doesn’t study carefully.

In fact, his peers say he may be one of the most thoughtful people in St. Paul. But he is one of those legislators not often heard, either on the floor or by the public.

“Probably my own fault for not making more noise,” he said.

Unfortunately, the state will lose this voice of reason at the end of the current loud, raucous and largely unproductive session. Dille, 65, is retiring after 24 years as a state rep and senator.

He’s a little sad about that departure.

“I’ve been walking around this beautiful Capitol more than usual, looking at all the plaques, trying to notice the things I haven’t notice in the years I’ve been privileged to work here,” he said.

An exercise in rhetorical restraint
A conversation with Dille is an exercise in restraint. He precedes much of what he says with such statements as “I’ve studied this” and “I’ve done surveys about that.”

One of his surveys, for example, came a couple of years ago. He wondered how many times an inaccuracy has to be spoken before people begin to believe it’s true. He went up to colleagues and asked them their thoughts on the subject.

“Different leaders said different things,” he said. “Some said as low as twice, some as high as 25 times. So let’s say you say something that’s not quite right 15 times, people will start to believe it.”

That’s what’s happening too often in this period of highly partisan politics. Inaccuracies and overstatements often have come to be believed as truths.

“There are people who believe Minnesota is over-taxed, over-regulated,” Dille said.

Again, understand, he does not support all DFL efforts to raise taxes. But he seems particularly perturbed at his own party about these statements.

He pointed to charges by members of his caucus who have said that if a fourth tier of income taxes were added, Minnesota would have the fourth-highest tax rate in the country.

At one level, true, he said.

But in context?

Look at Iowa. Dille noted that the DFL wanted to raise the tax rate for single filers with $113,000 taxable income to 9.1 percent.  That would be a slightly higher rate than the top rate in Iowa, but, he said, Iowa’s top rate captures people making as little as $63,000 a year.

But such reasoning may not even be popular in his own district. Dille said he is retiring on his own, that he’s not being forced out. But he also said that people far more conservative have “taken over the party” in the Dassel area.

“I suppose I’m not always popular with them,” he said.

Dille never has been one to buy in to pressure or group think.

After graduating from Litchfield High in 1963 — he was a state high school rodeo champion two years in a row — he got in a little dispute with his father about taking up farming as a way of life. His father said he could have the land but that all the machinery would be sold.

The young Dille responded by going to a Meeker County estate sale and purchasing two workhorses for $129.

For the next three years, he farmed 60 acres of land behind those horses while, at the same time, getting his veterinarian degree from the University of Minnesota.

In 1969, he went to South Vietnam, working as a vet in the government’s Department of Agriculture.

“Remember Henry Kissinger’s plan?” Dille asked. “Win over the hearts and minds of the people. I was part of that.”

Good idea. Didn’t work.

Family traditions: farming and legislative service
Dille came home, set up his practice, farmed and ultimately and became part of a family tradition by getting elected to the Minnesota House in 1986, the fourth generation of his family to become a state legislator, dating to his great-great-grandfather in 1871.

Over his years in the House and Senate, he’s played major roles in writing legislation on the state’s feedlots.  In the process, he’s often been labeled as the face of agr-business in the Minnesota Legislature. But Dille has studies that show that there’s only one way for farm families to survive: Get big. The options are to starve or have a spouse with a good-paying town job.

On occasion, he’s come up with some ideas that left his colleagues scratching their heads.

For example, in the early 1990s, he introduced an amendment to a welfare reform bill that would have had the Department of Human Services offer a free, online dating service to any single welfare recipient who wanted to use it.

After the laughter subsided, that amendment got only one vote, besides his own.

What was he thinking?

“A single parent with a $10-an-hour job can’t put food on the table for a family or afford a home,” he said.

Now that he’s in his final hours in the Legislature, he’s working on the farewell speech he’ll give. He’s studied speeches given by others in recent years. (He studies everything.) They’ve ranged in length from four to 22 minutes. They have one thing in common: He can’t remember anything about any of them.

“I’d like to come up with something that might be a little helpful,” he said.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Tim Walker on 05/13/2010 - 09:23 am.

    Yeah, when I wrote for Session Weekly in the 90s, I was always impressed by Dille.

    But that didn’t stop me from snickering at that dating service amendment!

  2. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 05/13/2010 - 10:45 am.

    So here’s a Republican who understands that we shouldn’t aspire to be Alabama. The only questions are, why is he a Republican, and why does he vote with them?

  3. Submitted by Daryl Hanson on 05/13/2010 - 11:09 am.

    Jeff,

    We call him a CINO (conservative in name only). He represents what has been wrong with the Rep party here in Minnesota and the country. Rep should cut spending AND don’t raise taxes.

    Like most of the people that read minnpost, they cannot comprehend what this means. I have yet to see a statistic that defines what is the appropriate amount of taxation that doesn’t stymie growth? What is that percent? 5%, 10 %, 80% of Minnesota’s GDP?

    Here is an old adage that my father shared with me many years ago: “I never have had a poor man hire me…. “ Now take this thought and expand it to how we have turned this progressive income tax and painting all wealthy people as BAD and we should tax the H#LL out of them. Continuing this diatribe, we take that money and give it to a group of politician in St Paul who (as a majority) don’t have a clue about what it takes to make a pay roll and let them decide where the money should be allotted. This just doesn’t make any sense.

    I guess I just don’t understand…

  4. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 05/13/2010 - 11:39 am.

    You’re right, you don’t.

    You can’t tax someone poor. It’s impossible, since taxes are waged as a percentage of income on a sliding scale. Do you honestly expect us to believe that someone whose post-tax net income drops from $400k to $390k as a result of a modest tax increase is going to go on some kind of firing spree? Remember, these taxes are waged on PROFITS, not gross income, and then only on high incomes. The only reason such a person would start firing people would be to purposefully destroy their own business.

    Successful businesses need infrastructure. They need good roads, they need public transportation to get their minimum-wage employees to work, they need schools to produce educated workers. Minnesota has, in the past, been willing to pay for these things, and as a result of this investment has led the country in quality of life for a century.

    I hate to play this juvenile game, but I simply can’t help but point out that Alabama exists. If this is the Republican dream land – low taxes, no money for education, social culture from the middle ages – then by all means, move there and leave our progressive gem of the North alone.

  5. Submitted by Susan Maricle on 05/13/2010 - 12:05 pm.

    So that was Rep. Dille! As a Minneapolis resident years ago, I read about an outstate legislator who did his best thinking behind the wheel of his tractor. I remember thinking it was the silliest thing I ever heard of. Today I live on a farm and do my best thinking when I clean my horse’s stall. Pitching out the muck, cleaning off the floor, and blanketing it with fresh hay gives me a chance to mull over problems, sift through solutions, and walk away with a real feeling of accomplishment. The horse appreciates it, too.

  6. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/13/2010 - 12:07 pm.

    It is comforting to know that for the past 24 years, there have been thoughtful voters that have supported and returned Sen. Steve Dille to office. I have to believe that those voters are still voting and are open to supporting a candidate with similar political leanings.

  7. Submitted by dan buechler on 05/13/2010 - 06:31 pm.

    Dassel Minnesota not too far from another thoughtful ex legislator Dean Johnson from Willmar.

  8. Submitted by Mike Housman on 05/13/2010 - 11:50 pm.

    Jeff,
    Let me help you out a bit on your economics. You have this idea that because a business makes a profit, its owner must be driving around in his fancy car and spending all that extra money. Obviously you have never owned a growing business. To grow a busines (create jobs) it takes capital. Taxes reduce capital formation. A business may show a profit, but that doesn’t translate into spendable cash for the owner. The money could very well be getting spent on infrasture, which is an asset that must be depreciated. Therefore he doesn’t get a tax deduction immediately for that investment. So basically he is getting taxed on money that isn’t in his checkbook. So to compensate less investment in job creating assets is made, so that taxes can be paid.
    You are correct about the needs of successful businesses. And most owners would happily pay taxes to fund these items. What drives us insane is that much of the taxation is simply wealth transfer. And frankly education is currently a black hole run by unions. We have more than enough money for education is we could just end the waste, fraud, and abuse.

  9. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 05/14/2010 - 09:40 am.

    Mike,
    your point about the necessity of capital for investment is taken. But that sounds more like a reason to amend the tax system to better serve small businesses than it goes a reason to avoid tax increases on high-income Minnesotans across the board. City-dwelling liberals like myself are genuinely enthusiastic about small business, but it gets frustrating to see those wealthy who are not small business owners perpetually use them as a shield. Every time you try to increase revenue to cover budget gaps the conservative cry goes up: “oh no, but what for the small businesses?!” Yeah right. The Wal-martization of America is a conservative vision, not a liberal one. Small business is almost more an idea than reality, particularly in conservative suburban districts, but it’s a useful one for tax-cutting politicians.

    And while nobody would claim the education system operates 100% efficiently, I think the idea that there’s so much waste and fraud in our public systems that we could cut ourselves to solvency has been repeatedly shown to be bunk.

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