The conservative elected official’s quandary


Conservative “no new taxes” state policy poorly positions Minnesota’s local elected officials. It allows a cash-strapped legislature and governor to push their budget problems onto local governments who’ve wrongly caught the blame for raising taxes and cutting service.

It’s all part of the conservative kabuki dance, where Governor Pawlenty and his conservative policy advocacy allies criticize local governments for a lack of frugality, knowing full well that Minnesota counties, cities and school districts have made deeper revenue cuts than state government.

This strategy is revealed when elected city officials gain legislative office. Their policy priorities, previously focused on community needs and services, suddenly shift. No longer responsible for budget decisions immediately effecting police staffing, library hours or road maintenance, local needs and nuance are readily discarded in favor of bombastic policy declarations.

This change is, perhaps, best observed in current gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer’s elected leadership service.

While a Delano city councilmember, Emmer approved a 16 percent property tax increase in 2003, according to Minnesota Public Radio. He, like so many Minnesota local elected officials, faced declining state revenue and needed more property tax revenue to avoid cuts in public services and infrastructure. MN2020 chronicles that quandary in a recent article.

Now, he’s in a tough spot because as Delano’s state representative, Emmer was part of the legislature that advanced a statewide, conservative “no new taxes” agenda. As gubernatorial candidate, Emmer continues  the same “no new taxes” pledge, planning instead to pass state budget problems off to local governments, forcing them to make the tough decisions.

When asked in an AARP debate recently about his city council vote to raise taxes, Emmer avoided the question, returning to his talking points. He touted his proposals, attacking those of his opponents, declaring that he “made the hard choices” to balance the state budget. At least four times, he dodged the question concerning 2003 Delano property tax increases, denying his city councilmember actions until, finally, he appears to acknowledge the property tax increases but characterizes it as “minimal.”  News flash for Rep. Emmer: a 16 percent property tax increase is not “minimal.”

(You can watch this interchange on the Uptake; the two minute segment begins at the 13-minute mark.)

To be clear: then-Delano Council Member Emmer should not be faulted for voting for a 16 percent property tax increase in 2003. Large aid cuts pushed by Governor Tim Pawlenty left Emmer and other local elected officials with no other choice than to increase property taxes as they simultaneously cut community budgets. However, statewide conservative Tom Emmer can be faulted; he advocates local aid cuts that will lead to property increases similar to the one he voted for in 2003.

All of the major party gubernatorial candidates have proposed both spending cuts and tax increases to balance the state budget. The choice on the tax increase side is simple.  Minnesota can get revenue through the backdoor, by compelling local governments to increase property taxes which fall heavily on those least able to pay.  Or, we can rely on progressive tax solutions that distribute the cost of public services and infrastructure more evenly among Minnesotans based on the ability to pay.