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Will the eight DFLers who voted against raising taxes by $2.1 billion still pay a political price?

Mike Mullen//June 21, 2013

Will the eight DFLers who voted against raising taxes by $2.1 billion still pay a political price?

Mike Mullen//June 21, 2013

Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, says she couldn’t support certain aspects of the tax bill that would’ve landed on farmers in her district, especially the addition of a sales tax to repair services on agricultural equipment. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, didn’t get much of a chance to speak her piece on the final version of the tax bill. There literally wasn’t any time.

The DFL majority’s omnibus tax bill passed the Senate with minutes to spare before the session’s predetermined end date of midnight on Monday, May 20. Somewhat obscured by the last-minute drama was the fact that four Senate Democrats crossed over to join the Republican caucus to vote against the tax bill, which passed by a 36-30 margin. (Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, voted in favor of the bill, thanks to its funding for the Mayo Clinic’s Destination Medical Center, and Sen. Dave Brown, R-Becker, was absent.)

Jensen voted “no” on the tax bill, as did DFL Sens. Terri Bonoff (Minnetonka), Melisa Franzen (Edina) and Susan Kent (Woodbury). Likewise, four House Democrats from moderate or swing districts opted to vote against the bill: DFL Reps. Yvonne Selcer (Minnetonka), Laurie Halverson (Eagan) and Ron Erhardt and Paul Rosenthal, who both represent Edina.

All told, the tax overhaul is set to raise $2.1 billion in new revenue through a combination of hikes to the income tax on the state’s highest earners, increased tobacco taxes and the expansion of the state sales tax to include previously exempt services. One or, in some cases, all of these changes were unpalatable for the eight DFL crossover votes. When contacted, several of the legislators who split from their caucus on the year’s biggest vote said they had decided based on personal opinion, or in order to be responsive to their district. They denied casting a voted based on political expediency.

But it might not be a coincidence that four of the eight DFL “no” votes came from first-term legislators, while Rosenthal and Erhardt had returned to the House following previous election losses.

Former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe said the idea of giving majority legislators a “pass” on certain votes is a longstanding tradition, and said it’s often best for a caucus leader to defer to individual legislators.

“They’re usually the person that is best to read their own district,” said Moe, who served 11 terms as the DFL leader in the Senate. “They know the issues that are important to their people.”

Concerns over sales tax expansion

Explaining her vote now, Jensen said she couldn’t support certain aspects of the bill that would have landed on farmers in her district, especially the addition of a sales tax to repair services on agricultural equipment. Those costs, Jensen argues, will add up to a lot more than a typical tune-up on an automobile.

She also didn’t support the bill’s application of sales tax to warehousing services. With expansion of the sales tax a part of the discussion during much of the session, the freshman said she knew it was likely she wouldn’t be able to support the final bill.

“There were always aspects that troubled me,” Jensen said, adding that she feared “unintended consequences” of the tax hikes affecting farmers.

Opposing the bill from a dramatically different district, and viewpoint, is Bonoff, who said she’d heard criticism of the tax proposals from her Minnetonka-area constituents throughout the session.

Bonoff’s suburban district is one of the more prosperous areas of the state, and a number of her constituents will fall under the DFL’s new fourth-tier tax bracket, which will tax joint filers earning more than $250,000 at 9.85 percent. The city of Minnetonka has a median household income of $81,588, considerably higher than the state average of $58,746, according to U.S. Census figures. Bonoff said the move to hit wealthy Minnesotans harder than the rest is part of a larger, “divisive conversation” about wealth in America.

“I disagree with the conversation that’s happened in our state, but also nationally, that talks about ‘people paying their fair share,’” Bonoff said.

Both Jensen and Bonoff have held multiple events in their districts since session’s end, and each said they’d had some success in explaining their position on the tax bill to voters. Bonoff, now in her fourth term, has built a newsletter mailing list of some 4,000 people, and said she tries to keep an open dialogue. She also aims to be responsive: On Thursday morning, Bonoff met with citizens angry about increases to the estate tax and the gift tax, and she committed to entering legislation next session that would repeal those tax hikes.

On the House side, Selcer echoed a line of thought offered by Bonoff, saying she’d have preferred to see her caucus pursue more in the way of spending controls, rather than tax increases. Selcer thinks her interactions with constituents have gone well since the vote, and that most are supportive of her position once she gets a chance to explain herself.

“People out in my district are very independent voters, and they expect their [representative] to be very independent, and vote their opinions,” Selcer said.

The combination of Erhardt, Rosenthal and Franzen voting no means the entire DFL representation of Senate District 49 rejected the DFL tax plan. Erhardt, who formerly sat on the House Taxes Committee as a Republican member, said he disagreed with parts of the bill that will have undue impact on businesses and top earners, and would have preferred to see the bill include an expansion of the sales tax to cover clothing.

Erhardt said he can’t say with certainty how his vote will play out among voters in his district, as he hasn’t met yet with a general audience.

“I’ve gone to a DFL meeting or two, and they all think [the tax bill] is great,” Erhardt said with a laugh.

For the most part, though, Erhardt described his district as “moderate to conservative,” and he hopes his decision to oppose the bill will resonate with voters of various stripes next year. “The Republicans don’t want any taxes, so what I did certainly does fit with what they’re thinking,” he said. “And I don’t think the people that would be complaining would be the Democrats, because they got all the things they want funded, like education.”

Scrutiny for spending votes

That argument doesn’t inoculate the DFL “no” votes from criticism, according to a pair of political operatives who might be targeting Democrats during next year’s House campaigns. John Cooney, director of the Minnesota chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), said his organization reviews voting records on spending bills as closely as it does tax bills, if not more closely. As Cooney explained, AFP is not necessarily in opposition to changing the tax code if it’s revenue neutral.

“When there’s a dramatic increase in spending,” Cooney said, “I think that piques our interest as much or more than a tax bill.”

Similarly, Republican campaign strategist Ben Golnik said savvy messaging experts will consider the whole of a legislator’s record in crafting opposition talking points and literature. Golnik, a cofounder of the new Minnesota Jobs Coalition political action committee, recalled the 2010 legislative campaign, when he and other operatives used a grid of DFL legislators’ voting records to target their districts. When the grid was viewed in full, Golnik said, “not one” of the Democrats was unencumbered by votes that could make him or her politically vulnerable.

Though he hasn’t reviewed the voting tallies from the past session yet, Golnik expects this year to be no different, and said an affirmative vote for a spending increase could be just as damaging as a “yes” on the tax bill.

“Looking at the whole menu of votes,” Golnik said, “there’s definitely bad votes for every one of those Democrats [who voted against the tax bill], votes that are going to show them out of step with the majority of people in their district. I know they’re there.”

For his part, House Speaker Paul Thissen doesn’t know whether going against the caucus on a difficult vote will pay off for a legislator politically, adding that he thinks the DFL “no”’ votes were merely trying to serve their districts. In any event, he said, most of them will probably wind up with their boss as a running mate, like it or not.

“Clearly, the Republicans are going to try to attack people by talking about me rather than their representative,” Thissen said. “On the other hand, if somebody didn’t vote for a tax bill because that’s not what their constituents were looking for, no one can come in and say they voted for that tax bill.”

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