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.
“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.