When Larry Pogemiller was Majority Leader of the Minnesota Senate between 2007 and 2011, he had a competent staff and the resources of state government at his disposal. But on a semi-regular basis, Pogemiller would make a phone call or have a hallway conversation with a numbers-crunching independent consultant named Jeff Van Wychen, who had his own database to help him navigate and identify trends in the minute and byzantine areas of property taxes, state aids and fiscal disparities laws in Minnesota.
“I liked talking to him because he was an independent thinker who was intellectually curious and a safe bet to go where the data led him,” says Pogemiller, now retired from elective office and a member of the Dayton Administration as Director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
“I would say, ‘This is what I got from senate staff. What do you think?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s interesting, but here is another way to look at it.’ Or he’d say, ‘This is what my clients wanted to know, which got me to thinking about doing a run [of the numbers] that showed this.’
“I’d always double-check it with my own staff, but he was reliable [in that] he was honest and had caveats,” continues Pogemiller. “He’d say he didn’t have the best data or wasn’t sure where it would lead. And he’d say when he thought you were on the right track. He told you the pros and cons of what we were talking about. Over the years we built up a trust relationship.”
That relationship began in the late 1980s, when Pogemiller was a member of the Senate Taxes and Tax Laws Committee and Van Wychen, just a few years out of college at the University of Minnesota, was crunching property tax data for the city of Minneapolis. “That was a heady experience for me, talking with Larry when he was on the conference committee, because outside of the legislative staff and the conferees, I was one of the first to know what was going on,” Van Wychen remembers.
Today, Van Wychen is the fellow and director of tax policy and analysis for the DFL-leaning website Minnesota 2020, which is run by former legislator Matt Entenza. It is his second stint providing research and writing op-ed and analytical pieces for the site. He began the relationship in 2008 before leaving in January 2011 to join the Dayton Administration as a senior research analyst.
“It just wasn’t real good fit,” Van Wychen says of his two years working in the governor’s office. “I wasn’t doing what I think I am really good at, which is looking at trends and being a counterpuncher — listening to claims people make and checking them to verify that they are consistent with the facts. In the governor’s office I was summarizing committee hearings and not doing much analysis. I’m happier where I am now.”
A self-described “native cheesehead,” Van Wychen grew up in a little town about 20 miles south of Green Bay, cast in a once-unremarkable, now steadily diminishing slice of middle-class Americana. He was the youngest of five children born to parents who never went beyond the eighth grade in school. His father was a union laborer, and then a foreman, at the local paper mill, and his mother was a homemaker.
“My parents were pretty apolitical,” he says. “My father probably leaned Democratic, but he never argued, or even talked much about politics. Until I was in college, I was pretty much a social conservative. On issues such as gay rights it took me a while to see the light.”
Van Wychen ran track and cross-country for the Catholic high school he attended, and worked odd jobs that began with a paper route, continued with janitorial work while he was in high school and extended to the paper mill as he was going to college. He came to Minnesota to attend grad school at the U in 1982. Chagrined to discover that a master’s degree in political science “pretty much qualifies you to pump gas,” he applied for a paid intern position for the League of Cities (LOC) in 1985.
It so happens that the person who hired him is Diane Loeffler, the current assistant majority leader, vice chair of the House Tax Committee and fifth-term state representative from Minneapolis. At the time, Loeffler was the chief tax policy person for the LOC, who needed an intern to help her create a database to model the proposed changes in property tax law that would affect the then-855 cities under the LOC umbrella.
“Jeff was working so hard nights and weekends that I appealed to the executive director to give him a pay increase,” Loeffler recalls. “When he told Jeff about it, Jeff said, ‘Oh no, I don’t need more money; I’m just happy to be here.’”
Loeffler explains that LOC wanted to unite behind a legislative proposal for changes in local government aid. But the organization required a two-thirds vote of its disparate membership to formally adopt a new fiscal policy position. While she was working on educating constituent groups and local elected leaders about the legislation, Van Wychen was crunching the data, analyzing ways in which the proposed legislation would help or hurt various cities. It was remarkable, intensive, on-the-job training that in many ways laid the foundation for what he has been doing ever since then.
“It was clear Jeff had the capability to understand complex financial policies,” Loeffler says. “But he also has the rarer skill of translating those concepts to the general population, like someone in city council, so they understand what is going on.”
Within two years, Van Wychen had been hired away from the LOC by the city of Minneapolis, where his informal relationship with Pogemiller was initiated. After 12 years with the city, he began his own firm, the Property Tax Study Project.
“I had to maintain a statewide property tax model and fiscal disparities model in order to do my analysis for the city, so Minneapolis was OK with me branching out and keeping them on as a client,” he explains. For another dozen years, his core client base included the cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, along with the counties and the school districts in those areas.
It was during the tenure of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty that Van Wychen’s counterpunching became most pugnacious and noticeable. Pawlenty consistently targeted changes in the local government aid formula and the state funding of schools as ways to help balance the budget without raising taxes. Armed with data and analysis from Van Wychen, his urban-based clients pushed back, showing how cities were often running a tighter, more fiscally responsible ship than the state, and pointing out how school funding was plunging relative to inflation and per capita spending.
It is ironic that Van Wychen could be typecast as a lefty, urban firebrand as a result of these positions. In fact, he retains deep rural roots, making sure to take two weeks out of each year to go bow-hunting for deer on the 80 acres of Wisconsin land he owns with his brothers and cousins, staying in a cabin without heat or running water. He also notes that his wife of 22 years “is from Montana, so I married into great vacations. And I like to go trout fishing in the Boundary Waters.”
The “lefty” part of the equation is likewise adulterated by experience. While conceding that he is “an old fashioned liberal,” Van Wychen expresses some of his greatest admiration for former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, whom he got to know more closely during his time working for Dayton, and for the public-service road shows put on by nonpartisan or bipartisan retired government bureaucrats.
One was the presentation made by former Minnesota finance commissioners Jay Kiedrowski from the Ventura administration and John Gunyou from the Carlson era, arguing for more responsible government spending. The other was the statewide tour undertaken by state economist Tom Stinson and state demographer Tom Gillaspy, warning of the fiscal dangers that come with an aging population.
At heart, Van Wychen is a data-driven progressive with a mischievous wit. He can be passionate about the upcoming 50-state survey of tax incidence studies being finalized by Minnesota 2020.
But he can also quip that his wife, Kathleen Bennett, “refused to acknowledge my sovereignty by keeping her last name.
“She has a master’s degree in business taxation and works as an accountant and finance director for the Red Cross,” he adds later. “She knows business taxes, I know property taxes. I joke with her that we need a mistress who knows sales taxes so we have the whole thing covered.”
The Van Wychen File
Name: Jeff Van Wychen
Job: Fellow and director of tax policy and analysis, Minnesota 2020
Grew up in: Kaukauna, Wis.
Lives in: Minneapolis
Education: Masters, political science, University of Minnesota; undergraduate degree, dual major in political science and history, U of Wisconsin, Stevens Point
Family: Wife Kathleen Bennett, no children. Youngest among five siblings (two brothers and two sisters).
Hobbies: Hunting, fishing and running
Odd fact: Ran seven marathons when he was younger, and recently completed his first one in 30 years