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Initially dismissive, legislators may be warming to the idea of ‘Walz Checks’

Perhaps the idea of residents opening checks from the state government in an election year started sounding better — especially if they’re called something else.

On the first day of the 2022 legislative session, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Gov. Tim Walz handed out scotcheroos and lemon bars. Walz checks could be next.
On the first day of the 2022 legislative session, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Gov. Tim Walz handed out scotcheroos and lemon bars. Walz Checks could be next.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

When first asked last month about the name his staff assigned to a plan to send rebate checks to Minnesota taxpayers — Walz Checks — Gov. Tim Walz was a bit defensive.

“You make up a good name … and we’ll use that,” he told a reporter who asked about the personal moniker in an election year. “Nobody out there gives one dang what they’re called. They just want them in their pockets.”

The DFL governor said there was a history of naming rebates after the governor — Jesse Checks for former Gov. Jesse Ventura, though the Independence Party governor known for self promotion and showmanship didn’t assign the name himself, others did.

Legislative Republicans, predictably, weren’t keen on the idea.

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“‘Walz Checks’ are nothing more than an election year gimmick, and it will barely cover the inflationary costs of everyday necessities,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, who preferred ongoing tax rate reductions.

Even the governor’s ally in the Legislature — House Speaker Melissa Hortman — said the idea had been tried two decades ago and was a logistical headache. She too preferred using the tax code to target tax cuts to those she said needs them.

On the first day of session Monday, however, the doubters seemed to warm to the idea. Perhaps the idea of residents opening checks from the state government in an election year started sounding better. And since the state has a record tax surplus — $7.75 billion more in collected and projected revenue coming in than is needed to cover the current budget — there is enough money to do checks and tax cuts and new spending without having to choose.

Walz would carve out $700 million of the surplus for rebates ranging from $175 to $350. His administration estimates that 2.7 million Minnesota households would receive money. Ventura’s plan sent checks over three years with the final year 2001 when $800 million was distributed in amounts ranging from $232 to $512. Those checks went out the last time Minnesota had a surplus of this size. In 1999, the surplus was 5.6 percent of projected two-year spending. This surplus equates to 14.9 percent but reaches 17 percent if the $1 billion in still-unspent American Rescue Plan money from Congress is brought into the calculation.

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller
Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller
Monday Miller said he was now open to the idea, though he prefers ongoing tax cuts.

“There’s a reason why we have a surplus,” Miller said. “The state is collecting too much money from the taxpayers. So our focus is returning that money back to the taxpayers. We can have discussions on how we do that, we might be okay with a one-time payment, but you know what, it’s got to be a heck of a lot larger than what the governor is proposing.”

Miller was still not okay with the name Walz suggested.

“We are not going to call it a Walz Check,” the Winona Republican said. “It is not Gov. Walz’s money. It is the people’s money. I mean who puts their name on a check that isn’t their money?”

Moments later Monday, Hortman was not as negative about the idea as she had been. She wasn’t exactly endorsing rebates either. The tension, the Brooklyn Park DFLer said, is that her party is reluctant to make ongoing tax cuts for fear it will put future budgets at risk. The work-through for the GOP and DFL in recent sessions where they shared power has been for tax and spending changes that don’t implicate future budgets — what budgeters sometimes call “the tails.”

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But because this surplus is different, not just in its record-size but that it continues into the next budget period, the calculations are different, Hortman said.

“We’ll take a very careful look,” she said. “All of us should ask a lot of questions when the February forecast comes out about what components of the surplus are ongoing and what we can afford. The February forecast is the next official projection of the state and national economy and the expectations for tax collections. It is that budget that will be used by the Legislature when it adopts a budget that makes adjustments to the $52 billion, two-year budget adopted last summer.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
So, is a 2022 version of the Jesse checks possible? “I think it’s way too early to say how we give money back to Minnesotans. The House DFL is focused on workers and who needs the help the most,” Hortman said.

Walz got another chance to sell the idea during an appearance before the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Session Priorities” event Monday evening.

Checks are important because even if people have gotten raises, inflation has taken some of that increase. And if checks are spent rather than saved, it could help retailers and service providers.

“I think it’s a critically important piece of this, with a surplus and what folks have been through, to try to provide this,” the governor said of the checks. He said it has a psychological effect on families and said Minnesotans are ready for some good news.

“I told the legislators, go out and ask folks if they’d like to have us send them a check back,” said Walz.

But the name?

“Over the last two years when I got blamed for everything that happened; I’m gonna claim credit,” Walz said.