MANKATO — Like ships passing in the night, Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton touched down Wednesday at the Regional Airport here.
Chronologically, they came and went in and out of their respective tiny aircraft about an hour apart. Politically, the separation could be measured more in light years.
For the GOP’s reps, it was a public relations effort to reach out to a small regional media corps – print reporters from the New Ulm and Mankato newspapers, and also from a Mankato TV station. A handful of supporters and public officials were there to listen, too.
For Dayton, the new governor, it was more of a star turn. About 35 friendly faces gathered, including regional political leaders, such as the mayors of Mankato and North Mankato and the president of Minnesota State University Mankato. They were there to thank Dayton for not slashing their Local Government Aid (LGA) or funding for the Minnesota state colleges. Some citizens sought autographs.
The Mankato regional center sphere is a poster child for communities whacked by the reduction of LGA over the past decade. Whether mayors or city managers are sympathetic to the DFL or lean Republican, they’ve felt the pain. And that topic got frontline attention during Dayton’s whistle-stop appearance.
And no wonder: The city of Mankato, with a total annual operating budget of about $20 million, has seen its LGA trimmed by 33 percent since 2003, including a total of $6 million over the past three years. Because there is growth in the city, property taxes have not spiked, but city services have been endangered, said Mankato City Manager Patrick Hentges.
Snow removal cutbacks, reduced hours at a public swimming pool, seven unfilled public safety jobs, and a $250,000 equipment purchasing delay are the result. Hentges echoed the sentiments of others: The state’s cities and towns have cut their budgets to the bone.
Dayton has held cities harmless in his proposed budget. Mankato would keep its $8 million a year of LGA. Under the GOP’s proposed budget that was vetoed by Dayton earlier this month, Mankato would have taken a $1.7 million hit, to $6.3 million, Hentges said.
“If we lose more Local Government Aid, we won’t be able to effectively deliver services,” he said. “It would have a radical effect on the economic viability of Greater Minnesota.”
Earlier in the day, before the state politicians invaded Blue Earth County, North Mankato’s newly elected mayor, Mark Dehen told MinnPost that under the proposed GOP bill, his city would take a $683,000 hit on a city budget of about $5 million. Among other cutbacks under that scenario, it’s possible North Mankato might have to pull out of regional mass transit.
Dehen ran as a nonpartisan in November. Even though he said he leans “more conservative,” he voted for Dayton because he liked his tax policy toward the wealthy and was concerned about LGA funding. He has personally felt the pain of LGA reduction; property taxes on his home office increased more than 20 percent over the past two years.
He said he thinks the Republicans have a good idea on job growth. He thinks the state needs to revisit the spreading out of the state sales tax to services, something promoted by Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner last fall.
What’s clear is this: The arrival of the GOP leaders and Dayton stirred a conversation about the state budget in Mankato Wednesday. That night, Dehen was scheduled to attend a joint meeting with Mankato and North Mankato leaders to figure out how to work together, to further consolidate services and cooperation.
Cities of his size, the mayor said, “have done our share” of the state’s cutbacks. That’s why he went to the airport … to shake hands with Dayton.
GOP arrives first
It was into this sort of environment that the GOP leaders landed their King Air turboprop just after noon.
In an effort to sell their position, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, Senate Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel, House Speaker Kurt Zellers and House Majority Leader Matt Dean conducted a fly-around today, crisscrossing the sunny Minnesota skies with the governor.
Dayton was accompanied by Commissioner Jim Schowalter (Management and Budget) and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
Mankato, 80 miles south and west of the Twin Cities was the third stop for both delegations.
Had they time to pick up a local newspaper, the Republican lawmakers would have seen The Free Press of Mankato. Reporting on Dayton’s budget speech Tuesday, the Free Press front page showed a story, “Local Institutions mostly pleased with governor’s budget proposal,” adjacent to an Associated Press story with the banner headline “Dayton’s budget fix would tax wealthy.”
For their part, the Republican leaders believe it’s those increased taxes that will paralyze the state’s “business climate.” The legislators didn’t arrive at this airport — which usually sees about 10 flights a day — with carry-on baggage.
They brought talking points and a poster board about tax cuts across the nation.
Sen. Koch said Dayton’s plan was the largest tax increase every proposed by a Minnesota governor, and she brought along that poster-sized map (PDF) showing other tax cuts in other states by Democratic and Republican governors alike. Dayton’s plan is an outlier, she said.
“He’s got a 20th century budget proposal for a 21st century economy,” Koch said of Dayton, arguing that tax increases in Minnesota will make the state less competitive.
Said Speaker Zellers: “Our message to the employers and the employees across the state of Minnesota is: ‘We’re not going to let the governor tax and spend your jobs out of our state.’ ”
Said Rep. Dean: “The budget that was released was very surprising. Iit was very confusing, somewhat bewildering to us. We understand that a campaign is what people do. Then elections happen and then you have to govern.”
When told about local officials’ concerns about LGA funding, Koch said the GOP is looking into reforms in LGA and into reductions of local mandates. She said: “We are looking to partner with cities, with counties” to “put dollars into the hands of local officials.” Koch said the GOP bill that was vetoed by Dayton did restore unallotments from last year, which is more than many cities expected.
As for the relation between increased local property taxes and the reduction in local government and county aids, Zellers pointed to Dayton’s budget proposal. It would increase statewide property taxes on houses with a value of more than $1 million.
“We think that’s a bad idea, no matter the house, the size, the cost, whatever,” said Zellers. “It is raising property taxes at the state level to take the cash back down to St. Paul, bypassing the local folks. That’s a real disservice to folks at the local level,” he said.
The governor arrives
At 2:18 p.m., almost an hour after the legislative leaders took off for Moorhead, Dayton arrived from Moorhead. The media corps had grown, with a few radio reporters on hand now, and there was a gaggle of dignitaries, some of whom – like Hentges, Dehen and MSU Mankato President Richard Davenport – publicly thanked Dayton for his balanced budget approach.
The governor then spoke in support of his budget and said he was determined to reach a “shared solution” with the legislators who stood at the same lectern 60 minutes earlier. A compromise, if not agreement, was necessary, he said.
“You can’t meet someone halfway, if their feet are in cement,” he said, extending the metaphor with “It takes two to tango.”
Dayton said that other than his surcharge on those $1 million homes, the GOP’s bill that he vetoed would have raised property taxes across the state – levied by local governments – by $428 million, according to the Department of Revenue.
“It’s not a question of no taxes — it’s which tax on whom?’’ Dayton said, adding he’s keeping his eye on the burdens on local government. The heads in the audience bobbed up and down in agreement.
The GOP leaders also claimed that Dayton is having a hard time finding DFL authors willing to transform his budget plan into legislation. A Dayton spokeswoman denied that, saying the governor hadn’t even approached lawmakers yet.
Said Dayton: “I would prefer to let the DFL leaders characterize the DFL view of my budget than let the Republican leaders characterize the DFL leaders’ view of my budget. I think you’ll get a more honest and accurate representation that way.”
Thus, the differences that normally play out in the marbled halls of the state Capitol found their way to Minnesota’s heartland. For Dayton, the power of the bully pulpit of the governor was obvious. For the GOP leaders, the crowd was a bit scarce.
Not to worry ,said Koch and Zellers. For this stop at this airport, their message will wind up in the New Ulm and Mankato media. In Moorhead, Rochester and Duluth, too. That’s good, they said, and made the day’s trip — paid for by GOP party funds — worth it.
Said Zellers of spreading the GOP word: “It’s our job.”
Said Koch: “Minnesotans will make the good decisions, if they have all the facts.”