One Minnesota governor hopeful framed his open concession to raise taxes as his "Walter Mondale moment." Another contender is fond of saying "Read my lips: Tax the rich" and makes a pro-tax pledge in TV ads. Two others don't shy either from tax calls.
At a time when the tea party and its had-enough message have politicians nationwide treading carefully, Minnesota's race stands out as a stark test of the public's appetite for government services versus a willingness to pay for them.
Voters will decide whether to veer left, a path that includes new taxes, or opt for another Republican vowing to rid the state of a budget deficit in the billions by attacking spending even more aggressively than departing GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty did in his eight years. Pawlenty blocked nearly every tax increase, but Democrats say the state can't rely on spending cuts alone.
Minnesota is part of a cluster of Upper Midwest states featuring competitive governor's races, with Democratic-held offices up for grabs in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Despite a liberal reputation that flourished in the days of Hubert Humphrey and Mondale — whose 1984 presidential bid sagged on a candid pledge of higher taxes — Minnesota is a political contradiction.
No state has been as reliable for Democrats running for president, going their way from 1976 on. But the party hasn't won a governor's race in a quarter century, a Democratic drought matched or surpassed by only Connecticut, South Dakota and Utah.
Faced with grim budgets, there is plenty of talk across the country about retooling state tax codes, which would force some taxes up as others fall. But candidates running on a tax-raising platform are scarce.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat up for re-election, is meeting resistance within his own party over an election-year proposal for higher income and corporate taxes. Alabama's Democratic nominee is pushing for new gambling taxes.
The first hint of the issue's potency in Minnesota comes Aug. 10 when either former Sen. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher or former state Rep. Matt Entenza emerge from a primary as the Democratic nominee. Dayton is the most ardent in his call for higher taxes.
The tax message sells with Democratic primary voters like Mary Carlsen, who teaches social work at St. Olaf College in Northfield. She left a June candidate forum torn between Dayton and Kelliher.
"It's gutsy to say you are going to raise taxes and I think those who said they would will be more likely to get my support," Carlsen said. "We have lost track of our common purpose in this state."
State Rep. Tom Emmer has all but locked up the Republican nomination and public relations executive Tom Horner is the favorite for the Independence Party's ballot line that has been a factor in recent elections.
Emmer appears certain to have the no-new-tax side of the argument to himself because Horner, a former Republican, favors expanding the sales tax. "Here's my Walter Mondale moment: I will raise taxes," Horner said at a recent debate before adding he would push to lower business taxes.
Dayton, who is a millionaire thanks to the family department store chain that spawned Target, says he'd impose at least $4 billion in new taxes on people who take home more than $130,000 a year.
His "tax the rich" mantra is a staple of his commercials and stump speech, and it feeds off state Revenue Department research showing the 10 percent of people who make the most pay a decidedly smaller portion of their earnings in Minnesota taxes than everyone else.
With one income tax plan after another falling to Pawlenty vetoes, Dayton argues that middle-class taxpayers are disproportionately picking up the slack through higher state fees for a range of services and rising property taxes to offset deep cuts to local government allowances.
"It's not a question of taxes or no taxes, it's which tax on whom," Dayton said.
Kelliher and Entenza say they also would raise taxes on top earners too, but won't go as far as Dayton or start on incomes as low. At a recent televised debate, both criticized Dayton's plan as politically untenable.
"I don't think any Legislature — Democratic or Republican — is going to tax $4 billion or $5 billion," Kelliher said. "I've been in the arena."
Emmer, the endorsed Republican, warns that small business owners who file through the personal income tax could get stuck diverting more money to the government instead of growing payrolls.
"I don't think they understand the ramifications when you throw that pebble into this pond where those ripples are going to go," Emmer said of the Democrats' tax plans. "It's not a matter of being wealthy, it's a matter of trying to create opportunity."
But Emmer is sticking only with vague descriptions about his approach to a looming budget deficit expected to top $5 billion. He tells audiences the time is ripe for government "redesign" and "restructuring," but refuses to provide many details beyond suggesting he'd collapse agencies with similar missions and lean more heavily on charities to shoulder safety-net programs.
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