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Legislative leaders have wrestled with spending Minnesota’s historic surplus. Scott Jensen has some thoughts about that.

Jensen has called on Republicans to “hold the line” and keep more of Minnesota’s historic surplus for next year — when he might be governor.

On Monday, Scott Jensen chatted on the Capitol steps with lawmakers about the failure to pass the tax bill and other spending.
On Monday, Scott Jensen chatted on the Capitol steps with lawmakers about the failure to pass the tax bill and other spending.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Over the last week, Gov. Tim Walz has negotiated spending plans and tax cuts with House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona.

But lately, Scott Jensen, the Republican-endorsed candidate for governor, has tried to insert himself as a factor in those ongoing talks by the legislative triumvirate.

Jensen last week said he opposed the deal for using the rest of Minnesota’s historic budget surplus — $4 billion in tax cuts and credits, $4 billion in spending on government programs and $4 billion in reserves — and has instead called on Republicans to “hold the line” and keep more of the cash for GOP priorities next year when he might be governor.

“Give the “Surplus” BACK,” Jensen said on Twitter at the time.

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Legislators passed little of their negotiated deal before the regular session ended Sunday night because top leaders and key committee chairs couldn’t agree on many details of the budget “framework” announced last week. Walz wants to finalize agreements over spending plans and call a special session, which Hortman supported but Miller was skeptical of. The governor said House and Senate leaders wanted a few days to mull over their next steps.

Jensen, a physician from Chaska and former one-term state senator, said he’s been talking to legislators, including Miller, about the unfulfilled legislative deal. And Jensen was at the Capitol on Monday to officially file for the governor’s race, but he held a news conference and an outdoor rally where he outlined what he thinks the Legislature should do next.

“Right now we need to be more frugal with our money,” Jensen said. “Let’s go ahead and have the election in November and then in November we’ll decide who’s going to be there in January.”

Jensen’s role

Jensen was critical of the budget and tax cut deal when first announced, a position similar to minority House Republicans. But on Monday in some ways he sought to align himself closer to the Republican-led Senate.

Jensen said the surplus belongs to Minnesotans and said there is a lot of “fluff” in the proposed spending. But Jensen praised the $3.88 billion tax bill made up of cuts and credits, which includes a full elimination of a state tax on Social Security benefits.

He said the tax bill should have been passed by lawmakers and the spending “lopped off.” But since one was tied to the other, Republicans “did exactly what they had to do,” by standing against “irresponsible spending.”

“I have every confidence that the Republicans are going to do everything they can to pass the $4 billion tax relief bill for Minnesotans and that’s where it stops,” Jensen said. “We don’t need more spending.”

Jensen was at the Capitol on Monday to officially file for the governor’s race, but he held a news conference where he outlined what he thinks the Legislature should do next. Running mate Matt Birk is at right.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Jensen was at the Capitol on Monday to officially file for the governor’s race, but he held a news conference where he outlined what he thinks the Legislature should do next. Running mate Matt Birk is at right.
Still, there are plenty of Senate Republican spending priorities. They want to pay for recruiting and retaining police officers, and have a $1 billion plan to aid the long-term care system. The Senate GOP has also pushed for spending to improve student literacy, and they want to use much of the $1 billion in the education bill to reimburse districts for special education costs that most districts currently pay for with general education dollars. The DFL is pushing to use more of the agreed-to spending on things like child care, community violence intervention nonprofits and transportation and also would spend on those GOP interests.

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Jensen endorsed “targeted” spending on police, nursing homes and improved literacy for students, but said, “if it’s coming with a lot of other, if you will, fruits and boondoggles and things like that I would not be interested.”

“I think if you want to give $4 billion back now and then work to get the next probably $6 to $8 billion taken care of in January, February, that seems more appropriate,” Jensen said.

It’s not clear how much influence Jensen has had. Jensen said he has talked to Miller “multiple times” and they have a relationship where they can share priorities but disagree on some things. He said he talked to lawmakers Sunday about negotiations but wouldn’t say who he spoke with. On Monday, Jensen walked around the Senate chambers and chatted on the Capitol steps with lawmakers about the failure to pass the tax bill and other spending.

Miller, for his part, said last week he respects Jensen’s opinion and said “at the end of the day we’re trying to get good things done for the people of the state of Minnesota.” 

“We think the framework of the agreement that we put forward accomplishes that,” Miller said. “If we can get permanent ongoing tax relief for the people of Minnesota, that’s a great thing for the people.”

Have he or his office been contacted by residents following Jensen’s suggestion to lobby lawmakers against the budget deal?

“Nope,” Miller said.

Jensen also sought Monday to contrast his leadership style with Walz. He claimed Walz hadn’t been public enough about negotiations and wasn’t transparent in general. Jensen suggested, for instance, holding meetings in front of reporters instead of behind closed doors.

Last week, Walz told MPR News that he had a cordial relationship with Jensen when they worked together on the bill to tap drug companies for the costs of responding to the opioid crisis. 

That changed after Jensen became a candidate for governor.

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“It’s hard to govern if you decide the whole thing is on division,” Walz said last week. “Compromise is a virtue, not a vice. I think you’re seeing it play out in Minnesota, not shutdowns, good budgets, working together getting compromises. It becomes very difficult when you don’t just disagree with people, you’re threatening to jail them, you’re threatening to criminalize them. It’s very hard to govern if you burn the house down.”

Walz also argued Monday that he has given up plenty of his priorities in negotiations and needs legislative leaders, primarily in the Senate, to do the same. Senate Republicans have argued Democrats aren’t budging enough.

Scott Jensen on the Senate floor at Tom Bakk delivers his farewell address.
Screen shot
Scott Jensen on the Senate floor as Tom Bakk delivers his farewell address.
Saturday night, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said the deal they will pass “in a few days’ time,” will cut taxes, and help fund law enforcement and nursing homes across the state.

“If the Senate Republican candidate for governor wants to oppose all of those things he might as well just choose a different party to run on because that is the Republican platform,” Winkler said.

Looking to the general election

Jensen’s news conference and rally Monday also seemed to mark the unofficial first day of his general election campaign. He still may face a primary challenge from former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. But the rally was meant as a show of unity. All the GOP-endorsed candidates for statewide office were there, and convention foe Kendall Qualls backed Jensen on the Capitol steps.

Jensen spoke in front of a sign with campaign themes that were not as prominent during the run-up to the endorsement. The sign called for lower taxes, lower gas prices, safe streets and excellent schools.

Jensen rose to greater popularity among the GOP base for questioning COVID-19 science around vaccine safety and effectiveness and death totals. At the convention in Rochester, he said he would shut down the government for election security priorities, reform emergency powers that Walz used to implement pandemic restrictions and relax gun regulations. 

And he also again called for Secretary of State Steve Simon to be jailed for how he ran Minnesota’s 2020 election. Though many Republicans have questioned a pandemic-related lawsuit in which the state agreed to suspend a requirement for people voting by mail to have another registered voter witness their signature, the settlement was approved by a judge, and Simon has not been accused of any misconduct. 

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Asked on Monday, after his rally, if COVID-19 would play a major role in his general election campaign, Jensen said in an interview he’s “optimistic that COVID will continue to drift away and we’re going to have to do some preparation for the next pandemic.”

He called for a pause on the state gas tax for “maybe a year” and wanted to reduce government spending by 5 to 10 percent. (Walz previously said he was open to a gas tax holiday, an idea that was criticized by Republicans.)

Still, when Jensen was asked before the rally by reporters to reiterate his immediate plans if elected, the Republican didn’t mention taxes, gas prices or police in his “100-day plan.” That plan, he said, would include a re-write of emergency powers law, a voter identification law and a “constitutional carry” provision, which usually refers to laws that allow people to carry guns without a permit.

Jensen’s running mate Matt Birk said he’s alarmed about “some of this ethnic studies, if you will, some of the gender ideology is being taught in schools.” He said they are belief systems similar to religion and shouldn’t be taught in public schools, a view that has driven their campaign focus on “school choice” policies.

Staff writer Peter Callaghan contributed to this report