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Pocketbook issues dominating many key Minnesota legislative races

Voters’ concerns about jobs and the economy are surfacing in legislative campaigns across the state.

“I’ve heard three things: jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Republican Sen. Carla Nelson, right, of voter concerns.
Courtesy of Nelson for Senate

Pocketbook issues — not the political blame game, or even the two controversial constitutional amendments — are dominating the debate so far in many key Minnesota legislative races.

battle for control series logoThe intertwined concerns about jobs and the economy are surfacing in legislative campaigns across the state.

 “I’ve heard three things: jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Republican Sen. Carla Nelson, who is running in District 26 around Rochester against the DFL candidate, attorney Ken Moen.

The two are battling in one of the 28 “highly competitive” legislative races MinnPost is watching that could determine whether the Republican Party keeps control of the Legislature or the DFL regains its majority in one or both houses.

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It would take a gain of only seven House seats and four in the Senate for the DFL to retake the majorities the party lost in the massive Republican victory in 2010. (Check out our interactive graphic on the featured competitive races and all of the 201 legislative contests.)

That’s why DFL Chairman Ken Martin said his party has made the legislative races a top statewide priority with a two-prong approach:

• Trying to counter Republican attempts to claim credit for the state’s so-called budget surplus.

• And highlighting GOP policies DFL candidates say are harming regular Minnesotans.

“The issues alone are on our side,” Martin said. “People see the harm of cuts all around them. Eagan alone has laid off 80 teachers in two years.”

Likewise, Republican legislative candidates are going all out to make their case to stay in control.

Minnesota GOP Chairman Pat Shortridge says the party’s top priorities are maintaining its legislative majorities and keeping its four GOP congressional seats.

Republican candidates, he says, are stressing their record of “responsible leadership” that includes:

• Turning the state’s deficit into a surplus while also trying to pay back K-12 schools.

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• Blocking Gov. Mark Dayton’s attempts to “force” unionization of day-care workers.

• Staving off DFL-backed, “job-killing” tax increases.

“It’s a fact that Democrats are going to be votes for Mark Dayton’s agenda of bigger government, much higher taxes, and huge giveaways to government employee unions,” Shortridge wrote. “We need jobs and a growing economy. Republican solutions will get our economy moving again and put people back to work. The Democrats’ approach has failed and the answer isn’t to double down on it.”

Economic issues big with voters

Economic issues, including the state’s budget situation, are drawing strong voter interest, according to both DFL and GOP candidates in many of the 28 key races we’re watching.

Nelson, like many Republicans, is campaigning in the Rochester area on the state’s budget outlook, which the GOP says is much improved from the situation lawmakers inherited in 2010.

DFLers, however, are quick to point out that much of that improvement came at the expense of the state’s public schools, with many districts resorting to short-term borrowing to make up for delayed school aid payments that were shifted to help close the budget shortfall.

Ken Moen at parade
Ken Moen campaigns at a parade

Nelson’s challenger, Ken Moen,  said he’s working to educate voters about the actual state of Minnesota’s short- and long-term budget situation: “We borrowed money from our kids, our schools.”

He’s concentrating his 90-second pitch on moderates of all parties — DFLers, independents and Republicans (he skips homes rated strong Democrat or strong Republican).

Moen said he usually gets a passionate response: “The budget is an important issue to [voters], and they don’t seem to be buying the spin the Republicans are putting on it.”

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Likewise, voters in House District 49B in Edina and Bloomington are expressing concerns about jobs and the economy.

State budget at issue, too

At a recent forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, DFL candidate Paul Rosenthal and Republican candidate Terry Jacobson fielded several questions about the state budget and how to keep it in balance.

The League of Women Voters’ candidate forum featured Paul Rosenthal and Terry Jacobson.

Rosenthal, who served as state representative for the area in 2009-10, described the current budget as kept in balance by “duct tape and mirrors.”

He, like other DFL candidates, considers the state to be facing a $4 billion shortfall next year because of factors not reflected in the current numbers, such as automatic spending increases and restoration of funding to K-12 education.

Rosenthal said he would look first to spending reductions but believes the state will need another revenue source, such as taxes on Internet sales.

Jacobson, meanwhile, sees the budget solution in job growth. The state needs to “focus on increasing revenue through more private activity,” she told the forum.

She, too, said spending cuts are the first option. She rejects the idea that the state will face a major budget shortfall, arguing that those estimates are based in large part on factoring in automatic spending increases. The state, she said, should “hold the budget static.”

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Both candidates are sensitive to voter concerns about slow job growth, particularly voiced by parents with children just coming out of college. Jacobson said she hears that when she’s out door- knocking.

“What they want to see is a little more impact,” Jacobson said in an interview. “People are looking for work, and it’s taking a long time.”

Partisan differences

In Senate District 36 in Champlin, the debate on taxes and spending is the key issue, and the candidates aren’t afraid to show their partisan differences. There’s little or no talk about “reaching across the aisle.”

 In a Sept. 23 debate, for example, Republican Sen. Benjamin Kruse and DFL challenger John Hoffman outlined opposing views on balancing the budget, paying for education, and expanding health care options.

Like Gov. Mark Dayton, Hoffman favors a tax increase on the state’s highest wage earners, saying, “I believe in greater fairness in the tax rate.” Kruse opposes tax increases.

Hoffman favors a single-payer health care system; Kruse says that’s “the wrong way to go.”

To create jobs, Hoffman wants to close tax loopholes to bring off-shore revenue back to Minnesota. Kruse, instead, favors lowering business taxes.

Kruse advocates ways to fund education without raising taxes, such as reforming school trust lands and promoting results-based funding formulas. Hoffman, who is vice chair of the Anoka-Hennepin school district, said delaying school payments has forced many districts to borrow.

In House District 24B near Faribault, DFL Rep. Patti Fritz touts one specific employment category: blue-collar jobs.

Fritz, who doesn’t use social media or a website in her campaign, said she’s focused on wage increases for workers. Her work as a nurse and her husband’s job as a firefighter — along with the experience of her Depression-era parents — have instilled a real sense of what poverty is like, she said.

Fritz, who learned grass-roots politics from Sen. Paul Wellstone, is confident her campaign is reaching voters effectively through personal interactions.

The race is a rematch of 2010, when Fritz narrowly beat her Republican opponent, Dan Kaiser, by 152 votes.

Kaiser cites job growth and taxes as his top priorities, noting on his website,Creating a favorable business climate is key to job growth.” On taxes, he says: “Our economic prosperity depends on state government lowering this burden and cutting taxes.”

Property tax, homestead credit DFL issues

The DFL has found another way to highlight economic issues, attempting to pound home, especially in rural areas, the combined impact of rising property taxes and the loss of the homestead tax credit.

These are especially significant concerns in Iron Range areas like House District 5B, where two incumbents — Tom Anzelc and Carolyn McElfatrick — are facing off.

Tom Anzelc in classroom
Rep. Tom Anzelc argues that the property tax system works better in the metro than in northern Minnesota.

The small commercial tax base complicates finances there.

“Property taxes don’t work for us,” Anzelc says. “Mining pays no property tax. Forestry industry pays at a reduced rate, or not at all. There’s no property tax on the Indian reservations. There are no property taxes on state, federal county parklands. When the philosophy is to pay for services with property taxes, it might work in the metro areas but it simply doesn’t work for us.”

GOP policies supported by McElfatrick, he said, have led to increases in property taxes. The elimination of the homestead credit has “caused great pain, and my opponent voted for that,” he said.’

Anzelc admits these are complex issues to frame neatly: “But more so than in past elections, people seem to understand the links [between state legislative financial decisions and local taxes].”

Carolyn McElfatrick at parade
Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick’s views are in line with much of the GOP on the government’s role in job creation.

McElfatrick outlines her views on government’s role in job creation on her website: “There seems to be a belief that it is government’s responsibility to create jobs. That’s not the system that built the economic powerhouse that is America. It is not the duty of government to create jobs. It is the rightful role of government to stay out of the way and let the free market system do that.”

DFL, GOP’s different tacks on gridlock

In competitive races across the state, Democrats have stressed Capitol gridlock as a major voter concern, while GOP candidates tend to downplay the issue.

Both candidates for House District 39 B in Lake Elmo, for example, are hearing concerns from voters about legislative gridlock and hyper-partisan politics. DFLer Tom DeGree says the gridlock issue must be solved. Incumbent Republican Kathy Lohmer, however, says there’s plenty of cooperation that voters don’t hear about.

The economy and jobs are still front and center, says DeGree, a teacher and co-owner of the Wilde Roast Café in Minneapolis. He adds, though: “I’ve been knocking since April and the big issue — they are sick of the politics, government not working together.”

Lohmer says she has heard similar comments.

“But I tell them, there was a lot of legislation that passed with bipartisan support, a lot of vote boards with all green,” she said.

Lohmer tells voters that the media only report the partisan battles, not bipartisan agreement. Her website reinforces that point, prominently featuring a bill-signing photo with Gov. Dayton.

In Senate District 37 in Spring Lake Park, voter interest in partisan politics also surfaces. Both incumbent Republican Pam Wolf and DFL challenger Alice Johnson report that often the first question they’re asked as they door-knock is: “What party are you with?”

Gridlock a concern, too

Johnson, who is trying again for elected office after a 12-year hiatus, says she tells voters, “I am running for one thing — to try to get rid of gridlock.”

Their reply, she says, is a nod and a knowing smile.

Sen. Ted Lillie

But Sen. Ted Lillie, a first-term Republican running in Senate District 53 in Woodbury, said he’s heard more from voters about jobs and the economy than about excessive partisanship.

Lillie is in a good position to discuss the shutdown because he proposed legislation to prevent it from happening again.

“There are conversations about the shutdown and who is responsible for that,” he said. “The Legislature bears some responsibility; the governor bears some responsibility. I had a bill that I proposed that basically would eliminate future shutdowns.”

Lillie’s July 2011 plan — supported by other GOP lawmakers and originally championed by then-Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, now the state’s lieutenant governor — would have funded government operations at current levels if there were no budget agreement. Ultimately, the bill failed to gain traction last session.

Susan Kent

His opponent, Susan Kent, however, says voters have expressed “incredible frustration at the gridlock.” She cites a conversation with one small-business owner about the difference between moderate Republicans and more conservative members of the caucus. Afterward, she said, the man told her: “You know what, I almost always vote Republican, but I think you’ve got my vote.”

Amendments low-key concern so far

So far, the two constitutional amendments on the ballot have drawn less interest from voters, candidates on both sides of the aisle reported to MinnPost, often with not a little surprise.

The voting amendment, which would require a voter ID to cast a ballot and would alter Minnesota’s election system, and the marriage amendment, which would define marriage as between one man and one woman, have attracted significant media attention and millions of dollars in outside spending.

But the average homeowner in many of the contested legislative districts hasn’t questioned candidates vigorously about how the amendments would play out — at least not yet.

“Actually, it’s not coming up as often as one would expect,” Lillie said. “I think it’s still early in the process … but I think there’s going to be a lot of interest placed in the media in the next coming weeks.”

Likewise, Patti Fritz said she was surprised at how little attention the amendments are getting in her visits with Faribault voters.

“Nothing. It’s like they’re not even on the ballot down here,” she said. “We’re trying to make a living down here.”

Likewise, in House District 39B, DFLer DeGree says he has heard very little. However, Lohmer, the  incumbent, says voters are asking about the voting amendment. Most of those she talks to support the amendment, she said, but are concerned or confused by some of the information they are hearing.

Although the marriage amendment is not a major issue in the district, the two candidates have clearly different views. Lohmer’s website states: “I support marriage between one man and one woman and nothing else as its legal equivalent.” DeGree’s Wilde Roast Café, meanwhile, was one of the first businesses to sign onto the Vote No campaign. His website says: “We need less government, not more in our personal lives.”

Sen. Jeremy Miller, a Republican from Winona who is running for re-election in Senate District 28, said he uses his opposition to the voting amendment to show voters he can work across the aisle.

Miller was the lone Republican in the Senate to vote against the proposed ballot question. “I feel I’ve been with the people, and that’s the most important,” he said.