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What if the DFL had kept control of the Legislature?

Even with DFL majorities, Dayton still would have faced some difficult battles in setting an agenda.

If the DFL would have maintained majorities in the House and Senate, Dayton still would have faced some difficult battles in setting an agenda.

Editor’s note: With all of Minnesota’s political polarization since the 2010 elections, we decided to explore two possible “alternate realities” that could have occurred if relatively few voters had chosen “the other candidate.”  

Second  of two articles

Earlier: What if Tom Emmer had won the governor’s office?

A year ago, Gov. Mark Dayton was unveiling his first plan to tackle the state’s massive budget deficit.

Dayton’s initial plan called for the creation of a fourth income tax bracket. Couples earning $150,000 or more would have been taxed at a 10.95 percent rate. There also would have been a 3 percent surcharge on those making $500,000 a year or more.

The response of Republicans was predictable. They were outraged at the “epic” tax increases the governor was proposing — increases they said would put the Minnesota tax rate at the highest in the nation.

It was the responses of DFL legislators, however, that was more telling. They were silent. No DFL leaders embraced the governor or his plan.

That DFL silence underscores the differences between the what-if-stories we’re presenting.

Had Tom Emmer, or some other Republican, joined the Republican sweep to legislative majorities in 2010, a dramatic agenda would have sailed through the process.

Fate of Dayton agenda unclear

But the reverse isn’t necessarily true.

If the DFL would have maintained majorities in the House and Senate, Dayton still would have faced some difficult battles in setting an agenda.

Republicans, at least outwardly, sing from a common “less-government” songbook. DFLers, however, often can’t agree on either the songs or the book.

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Either scenario — Republicans or DFLers in total control — was within handfuls of votes of happening.

With the GOP holding a 72 to 62 advantage in the House and 37 to 30 in the Senate, a swing in only few races would have changed control of the Legislature.

Look at how legislative majorities turned on Nov. 2, 2010 on close races like these: Rep. King Banaian, R-St. Cloud, defeated DFLer Carol Lewis by 13 votes. Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, defeated DFLer David Bly by 37 votes. Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea, defeated DFLer Robin Brown by 57 votes. Rep. Kirk Stensrud, R-Eden Prairie, defeated Maria Rudd by 107 votes. Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, defeated DFLer Bernie Lieder by 131 votes.

Nearly as dramatic outcomes were unfolding on the Senate side as DFLers watched their majorities slip away, vote by vote, seat by seat.

What might have been?

Rukavina’s blunt assessment

“We wouldn’t have been dealing with an agenda written by the Chamber of Commerce,” said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia. “We would have had some fair taxes. We wouldn’t have lost so much on the homestead credit. We wouldn’t have had the highest cuts in higher education in state history. We care about people, not corporations.”

Those things are easy to say, but some of those actions would have been difficult to pull off, given the reality of the huge deficit faced by the governor and Legislature last session and the large splits among DFLers.

Look at the issues that divide the DFL:  Urban environmentalists vs. job-hungry Iron Rangers. Suburban moderates vs. urban liberals. Wedge issues such as gun control.

That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t have been dramatic changes if DFLers were in control.

For starters, there would have been no amendments on the November ballot. No gay marriage amendment, no photo ID, no chance of making Minnesota a so-called “right to work”state.

Additionally, large bonding bills would have been passed. Construction would be under way on convention center renovations and expansions in Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato. Likely, a new ballpark would be rising in downtown St. Paul.

There would have been a push by unions and such DFL legislators as Rep. Tom Rukavina to increase the minimum wage. (Instead, with Republicans in charge, there is a push by some Republicans to push the tip penalty, a provision that would allow servers who receive tips to receive less than the minimum. That surely would be vetoed by Dayton.)

But public subsidy of a new Vikings’ stadium and gambling expansion — other than electronic pull tabs — would be stuck in the same legislative muck they’re stuck in now.

Dayton’s agenda

In his heart, Dayton —- who constantly makes references to his first political mentor, former Gov. Rudy Perpich — identifies most closely with the old Rangers. That means, to the distress of some environmentalists, jobs, coupled with education, are the top priorities.

Despite his silver spoon upbringing, or perhaps because of it, Dayton also places a high priority on what he considers tax fairness, which comes down to his simple campaign slogan “tax the rich.”

Dayton also has a fundamental belief that government can do good. Minnesota moved ahead of the rest of the country, he believes, because of progressive government that was willing to “invest.’’ (In other words, tax and spend.)

The governor made a reference to his belief in his State of the State speech earlier this month.

“When this magnificent Capitol opened in 1905, Minnesota was a very different state,” he said. “And not nearly as successful. Our citizens’ per-capita income was below the rest of the country’s and it dropped to only 85 percent of the national average by 1920. There it floundered for the next 25 years, before beginning a gradual climb to parity with the rest of the country in the 1960s, rising above the national average in the 1970s and continuing to improve thereafter.”

The keys to that rise, Dayton went on to say, was based on the state’s willingness to invest in such things as education.

Investment means spending, and spending means taxes. And when it’s taxing the rich, that is a message that plays well, especially in the old DFL bases of northern Minnesota and the cities.

But there is this reality. Those old Rangers, such as Rukavina, are a diminishing breed because the population there is declining. The size of the Iron Range delegation in St. Paul will shrink again with the state’s new redistricting map.

It’s in the suburbs and exurbs that the population is on the rise, and that creates a new genre of DFLers.

That means new messaging for the party. “Tax the rich” calls make suburban DFLers wince. “Hmm … Are couples earning a combined $150,000 really rich?’’

By the time Dayton had refined his “tax the rich” slogan to include only those 7,000 or so people in the state making $1 million a year or more, there was more comfort among DFLers about his message. (It didn’t hurt that polls showed that the final Dayton tax plans were supported by a substantial majority of Minnesotans.)

Still, when legislative campaigns start heating up this summer, you won’t hear many DFLers campaigning on Dayton’s tax-the-rich theme. Instead, the DFL focus will be on the “middle class.”

For every time House Speaker mentions “the business community,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen mentions “middle class” about three times.

That means a focus on such things as property taxes, funding for K-12 education and the high costs of higher education.

That desire to focus on such things as higher education is one of the reasons so many DFLers bristled at the high payout the University of Minnesota’s new president, Eric Kaler, made to departing athletic director Joel Maturi.

It doesn’t matter that the money being used to soften Maturi’s departure comes from a special president’s fund,and  it doesn’t matter that Kaler argues that Maturi will raise far more money than his departure salary. What matters is the symbolism.

If the University budget has been “cut to the bone,” how does it happen that there’s more than $400,000 to pay Maturi’s salary and benefits for a year after he steps down?

Symbolism matters — if only to a small portion of voters. And as 2010 proved so convincingly, only a handful of voters can make a huge difference in the direction the state heads.