As the 2010 session opens, please listen to Al Quie


For God’s sake (or at least for Pete’s sake), could just a few good legislators in those anti-tax straitjackets please listen to and heed former Gov. Al Quie, a Christian conservative of uncommon common sense and compassion? 

If this happened, and if Quie’s sage advice were followed — and if a few profiles in courage emerged as veto over-riders on revenue increases — we might actually reach a reasonable budget compromise in the 2010 legislative session. 

Of course, this session opens once again with a large near-term and long-term budget shortfall, yet another in a blighted, stingy decade, perhaps Minnesota’s worst era since the 1930s.

At least, that’s the case for the vast majority of us who don’t live at the top of the income ladder. Budget crisis has become a routine predicament since we began cutting taxes a decade ago and starving our governments, thereby disinvesting in schools and highways and health care.

In other words, since we shortsightedly started diminishing the first-class public assets that had long served as a foundation for the shared prosperity, quality-of-life, and business growth that made Minnesota stand out. A couple of excellent studies over this last year (The Lost Decade, by the Minnesota Budget Project, and On Our Way to Average, by Minnesota 2020) document the decline. 

Enter Quie. 

Although he’s well into his 80s, one sees him everywhere on the policy circuits these days and he is a cheerful, indefatigable citizen activist for several causes. 

Al Quie is a former congressman who served as governor from 1979 to 1983, and at the time was considered one of the most conservative governors to hold the office in quite a while. 

And he actually has been making the case since 2003 that balancing huge budget shortfalls without tax increases is folly, and mean-spirited besides. 

But he’s not the only one: Every other living governor from all three major parties has agreed with him. 

Here’s what Quie had to say in his most recent interview, in a story by Betsy Sundquist in Capitol Report/Legal Ledger article on Jan. 25: That his own use of gubernatorial “unallotment” authority during the budget crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s was “a big mistake” and actually led to Republican losses in 1980. (Quie’s unallotments truly were modest, emergency tactics, and they represent a tiny fraction of the billions “unalloted” by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty’s unallotments have been ruled unconstitutional but are on appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.) 

That the variety of revenue increases he finally agreed to, including an income tax surcharge of 7 percent — despite running on a 1978 campaign promise to cut taxes — helped restore stability to the state budget and governments. It also led directly to his decision not to seek a second term, which Quie described as “like a resurrection. I was free.” 

That Minnesota needs to raise taxes now, preferably through expanding the sales tax to clothing, currently exempt, and through reducing income tax breaks and deductions, such as those on home mortgage payments. (A tax package introduced last year by House Taxes Committee Chair Ann Lenczewski included analysis showing that income tax breaks and deductions disproportionately favor those with the highest incomes.) 

That this is really about more than taxes and accounting — that it’s about how Minnesota invests in itself, particularly our children. Quie said he favors more attention to early childhood learning to help at-risk learners and to close the achievement gap between poor and non-poor, and kids of color and white kids. (In previous interviews, Quie has talked eloquently about how he couldn’t balance the budget through cuts alone because he knew governments actually served the vulnerable and increased human potential.) 

That “the biggest crime we commit is in the neglect of our children, and we are committing that crime right now inMinnesota.” He warned against putting “ourselves ahead of our people … You have to look at this and tell yourself that you aren’t a superhuman being … Authority really has to come right out of your gut, and out of integrity, or it means nothing.” 

Quie happens to be leading another worthy cause: a constitutional amendment that would prevent partisan politicization of judicial elections, and transform the selection process into one in which judges are rated by citizen panels and subjected to retention elections.

When Quie was in office he became a leader in bringing a merit system to Minnesota governors making judicial selections, and in doing so he surrendered power and deferred to others in making such selections. 

The State of Minnesota should be thanking this man. Wouldn’t it be fitting if, at the end of the 2010 session, we had a more compassionate and investment-minded budget solution AND a constitutional ballot question that ensured continued public regard for our judicial branch? 

We could call it the Al Quie Memorial Legislative Session. And then we might have a decade that is at least as prosperous as the 1980s, helped in part by those reasonable and courageous tax increases at the outset.

A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report. 

Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues. He also spent 30 years as a writer for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, where he delved into state, local and federal governments and politics.