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For five months DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the GOP-controlled Legislature sparred at the Capitol over how to eliminate the state’s $5 billion budget deficit. But with the legislative session concluded and no end to the budget impasse in sight, the debate will now move beyond St. Paul as legislators face constituents in their home districts.

Minnesota’s budget fight heads to Main Street

For five months DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the GOP-controlled Legislature sparred at the Capitol over how to eliminate the state’s $5 billion budget deficit. But with the legislative session concluded and no end to the budget impasse in sight, the debate will now move beyond St. Paul as legislators face constituents in their home districts.

The reaction they receive in coffee shops, parades and town hall forums across the state will almost certainly influence how the budget debate ultimately plays out in the coming weeks. Many independent groups will be seeking to influence that discussion through advertisements, social media and letter-writing campaigns.

The Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM) — the liberal, union-backed advocacy group whose ads were widely credited with helping to define GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer in last year’s campaign — announced shortly after the conclusion of the regular session that it will spend between $550,000 and $1 million on a statewide advertising campaign that pillories the GOP budget and backs Dayton’s proposal to raise income taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents by $1.8 billion. Viewers are urged to call their legislators to express support for Dayton’s budget.

Denise Cardinal is the executive director of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a liberal, union-backed advocacy group. ABM announced that it will spend between $550,000 and $1 million on a statewide advertising campaign that pillories the GOP budget. “It’s really about making sure everybody understands what’s at stake in this discussion,” Cardinal said.

“It’s really about making sure everybody understands what’s at stake in this discussion,” said Denise Cardinal, executive director of ABM.

According to Cardinal, the group will produce different versions of the ad tailored to specific districts; those spots will call out individual Republican legislators by name. The advocacy group is still finalizing its list of targets, but the Republicans who are likely to be singled out include freshman Reps. King Banaian, Deb Kiel, Doug Wardlow and Kelby Woodard, and first-term Sens. Pam Wolf, Jeremy Miller, Ted Daley and Carla Nelson.

Those legislators were chosen either because they are believed to be politically vulnerable or represent districts that will be particularly hurt by cuts proposed by the GOP-controlled Legislature. Banaian’s district, for instance, includes two colleges that are part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, which would face a 14 percent cut in state assistance. In addition, the first-term Republican won election by just 10 votes in November — the closest contest in the state.

So far no big-dollar equivalent to the Alliance for a Better Minnesota has emerged to support the GOP stance. The state Republican Party, however, unveiled a website last week to criticize the governor for putting the state on course for a government shutdown. “I’m absolutely convinced Mark Dayton will shut down the government,” said state Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton at a news conference introducing the website. “That’s his plan. … If you look at his rhetoric in the last month, it’s all been about shutdown.”

In addition, on Wednesday Sutton sent an “action plan memo” to local GOP leaders across the state. It encourages them to write letters to the editor and commentary pieces for local newspapers, push Republican talking points on Twitter and Facebook, and call into nonconservative talk radio programs aired by Minnesota Public Radio, WCCO (AM-830) and other stations. “Now that the legislative session is over, the real battle begins,” Sutton wrote. “We need to mobilize the grass-roots to support our legislators and to show voters how our approach is the best approach for Minnesota.”

Sutton didn’t rule out television advertisements down the road. “Stay tuned,” he said. “It’s going to be a long, hot summer.”

But that doesn’t mean that Republican-aligned groups will be ceding the airwaves to Dayton’s talking points. According to Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, business-backed groups are considering options for newspaper, Internet and broadcast advertising. “I think we’re looking at everything,” Weaver said.

But Weaver concedes that they won’t be able to match the Alliance for a Better Minnesota’s spending. “They always outspend us,” Weaver said. “I think frankly the test will be whose message resonates well with the public regardless of what you spend.”

The Taxpayers League of Minnesota is also trying to raise money for an advertising campaign to support the GOP budget stance. In an email message sent to supporters last week, the group’s president, Phil Krinkie, warned that liberals could dominate the debate. “We must support our senators and representatives who have said ‘no’ to Dayton’s job-killing tax increases,” Krinkie wrote. “Legislators will soon be facing immense pressure to raise taxes, generated by $1 million worth of advertising paid for by tax-and-spend special interests.”

But Krinkie also believes that they won’t be able to match the deep pockets on the left. “I can guarantee you that whatever we do is going to be a mere fraction of what their announced plans are,” he said.

The Freedom Club of Minnesota, another conservative independent advocacy group that frequently goes on the airwaves, is staying out of the mix for now. “We’re sitting back and just monitoring the situation,” said Michael Scholl, the group’s executive director. “We have nothing in store as far as any media.”

Not all groups are explicitly aligned with either the DFL or GOP’s budget stance. Conservation Minnesota previously aired radio ads during Minnesota Twins games to push its proposal to create a 10-cent deposit on most bottles and cans. The plan would raise approximately $100 million for the state annually.

Molly Pederson, government affairs director for the environmental group, says they are retooling the ad to focus on a more conservative message of efficient government. The nonprofit group expects to spend in the neighborhood of $25,000 to $30,000 to air the new spot. “It’s going to have to be quick and dirty,” Pederson said. “We don’t have a ton of money.”

Other groups are organizing town hall meetings with legislators to let their opinions be known. The Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, for instance, has gatherings scheduled with GOP Rep. Keith Downey and GOP Sen. Pam Wolf during the next two weeks.

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities will also be active in towns and cities across the state meeting with local officials and holding news conferences. Their message: Proposed GOP cuts to local government aid will hurt local communities. “Mayors from across the state will have to be very aggressive — whether it takes the month of June or until Christmas — to advocate for a state budget compromise that will not raise property taxes on families and businesses by cutting LGA,” said Tim Flaherty, the group’s executive director. “We hope and expect common-sense leadership will emerge to forge a balanced compromise that averts a government shutdown and protects Minnesota communities.”

But Dayton, as the state’s top executive, has potentially the greatest latitude in shaping public opinion in the coming weeks. He has the ability to summon the news media to the governor’s office any time he chooses. “I think that the governor always has the advantage in a special session or a government shutdown,” said Weaver, of the Minnesota Business Partnership. “He’s got the soapbox.”

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