That title refers to the messes the MNGOP majorities left behind for DFL legislators, though I don’t mean to compare the MNGOP to Laurel and Hardy by paraphrasing Hardy’s favorite expression. That would be unfair. Laurel and Hardy were funny on purpose.
There is something of a meta-mess going on, unfortunately. Some skittish DFL legislators are listening to the framing of the Republicans and the press and adopting a word they should just get out of their vocabularies, “overreach”. Looking at a mess and working on a way to fix it is not “overreach” — especially when you ran your campaign on fixing it and the voters agreed.
Overreach is when you do what the Republicans did. They ran in 2010 telling voters angry about high unemployment and their underwater mortgages that they would fix it, and then they worked on anything but. Well, not anything, some specific things, but not what they ran on. They were sent to address the mortgage crisis and lack of jobs, and instead they tried to restrict voting rights, put marriage discrimination in the constitution, and for good measure imposed a government shutdown to force the governor to sign off on a bunch of lousy legislation. Now that’s overreach.
Fixing the budget mess — that’s what you ran on, not overreach. DFL legislators, you rightly campaigned on what a sham it was for the Republicans to claim they balanced the budget when they cashed in the tobacco endowment, shifted school financing to make the public schools into involuntary lenders, and drove up such taxes as they could blame on local governments. Caution will not fix these things.
I wouldn’t suggest that mere tweaks and tepidity would accomplish nothing, for indeed they will. They will give you the chance to start on non-political careers after the next election. Right before embarking on your new careers, you’ll have the pleasure of running a campaign on a slogan like, “Re-elect me because I went to the legislature and thought about doing what I said I would do, and I might even have done it as long as there was no political risk involved.”
Actually, the skittish caucus is talking about taking a huge risk, though they may not have realized that’s what they’re saying.
Care to take a risk of throwing away the governor’s office after just one term? Then by all means, ignore that Gov. Dayton said, “Tax the rich” at every stump speech and debate and managed to win. It was a narrow win to be sure, but keeping in mind that the IP candidate also called for tax increases, that’s a big majority that voted for a candidate promising to raise taxes. This should tell you two things. One, voting to raise taxes is not risky and two, your refusal to raise taxes means Gov. Dayton will have to run for reelection next — next year — looking weak from being unable to get a DFL legislature to support what got him elected. If the governor looks weak and gets taken down, what will that do to your own prospects? What will you do in 2015 after losing the governor’s mansion and a bunch of seats? I don’t know either, but I’m pretty sure it won’t have much to do with legislating.
Yet this pointless risk of defying a DFL governor seems to be what the skittish caucus is thinking about:
Dayton’s proposal to tax high earners has run up against some political and practical realities. First, President Obama recently pushed Congress to raise the federal income tax rate for high earners, potentially limiting how much more Dayton could raise and not overburden the wealthy. Some DFLers have cooled to steep income tax increases on high earners, saying they don’t want to make it harder for the state’s leading companies to recruit top talent.
Legislative leaders now say it would be difficult to get $1 billion in new income tax money from high earners, about half of what Dayton sought two years ago.
“There’s some room, but there are some limitations,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. “We need to be careful with it. It is not an unlimited pool of [m]oney.”
Well, mathematically, that’s true, since no pool of money is unlimited, but overburden the wealthy — are the Senate Majority Leader and the writer of the article kidding? Is that a bad attempt to feign innumeracy? The federal rates just went back up to where they were in the 1990’s for the richest people, and they made bags and bags of money then. We had tax cuts in Minnesota too, remember? You know, those stupid things that kicked off over a decade of perpetual budget crises? Not only did the wealthiest get most of the income gains during that time, but since the financial crisis of 2008, they’ve gotten almost every gain. So Majority Leader, if you can’t be bold, then be mathematical: this pool of money that’s not unlimited is nonetheless massive. We simply refuse to use it. Moreover, there is simply no way to end the annual budget crisis in our state without raising taxes at the top. That’s not even about fixing the unfairness of our state and local tax burdens being heaviest at the bottom. It’s just math.
So if some skittish legislators can’t get motivated by opportunity knocking on the door, ringing the doorbell, tossing pebbles at your window and threatening to trample your flower bed if you don’t open the door, then be motivated by the fear of what happens when you toss away the only means of fixing the budget because some rich person somewhere who would never vote for you anyway might get mildly ticked. Speaking as one of those grassroots DFLers who is going to have to try to drag you over the finish line next year, that’s a bad risk to take.
So far we’re just thinking about the budget in general. If you really want to fix education funding, you’re not going to do it with some technical fixes to funding formulas. There isn’t enough money. Period. Making tweaks to the distribution of inadequate funding is going to leave our schools pretty where they are, hard up for funds. If the schools on Labor Day 2014 are in the same position as the schools on Labor Day 2012, the Republicans will spend the campaign season at the voters’ doors making sure they know bupkis got fixed. You can’t take that chance, which means you need to act boldly. You could run for reelection explaining how you resolved the Republicans’ chronic underfunding of schools to put them on a sound financial footing, or you could leave taxes right where they are, and have fun explaining next election why you did pretty much nothing.
And that just the fiscal messes. Let’s think about some other messes they left, and the accompanying opportunities. Yes, we’re thinking about marriage equality (though not only marriage equality — more on that later). Non-metro legislators are mostly representing districts where the marriage ban won. This has legislators worried about bringing up the issue for fear of losing heir seats. Not only me, but others in the liberal blogosphere and DFL grassroots have been trying to explain to DFL legislators not just the opportunity in front of them to get the ban repealed while our opponents are back on heir heels, and when there is a lot of time for voters to move on to other issues before the 2014 elections, but that failing to act will entail a huge price in the loss of support and enthusiasm from people who worked hard to beat the amendment and put the DFL in the majority. A lot of these are people who hadn’t volunteered for a campaign for a long time if ever, and young voters who are still developing their voting habits. Failing to move, and we’re far enough into the session that there is no excuse for further delay, risks harming DFL electoral prospects for a long time. Young voters, and people of all ages who come out infrequently but did this time, will learn that even with a clear win, their candidates won’t move.
But I ask legislators to think about this in terms other than relative risks (though to be clear, it’s still the case that inaction is much riskier than action). Think very long term. Yes, people in more conservative districts aren’t ready for gays to get married, or really, equality in general. Yet think back a bit — they weren’t ready for black people to vote either. They weren’t ready for women to be paid the same as men. They weren’t ready for Jews to buy what houses they want despite restrictive covenants. They didn’t get ready until after equality under the law became real. There were, at the time these laws were passed, legislators who opposed these laws because their constituents just weren’t ready for other people to have rights.
So I ask current legislators, when you think back on the legislators who voted against civil rights in their time, what do you think of them now? Does the claim that their constituents weren’t ready ring hollow? So when it comes time to vote on the civil rights issues of today, what do you think future legislators will think of you for refusing to do the right thing? Is a slightly improved chance of winning one more election really worth how you’ll be thought of in decades to come?
Now the “more on that later” part, because circumstances have handed the DFL other opportunities. The photo ID debate revealed that not only is voter fraud remarkably rare, but what there is is almost all former felons voting or registered before their rights are restored. Few cases can be prosecuted because the former felons involved were unaware their rights weren’t restored yet. There’s a chance to end all real voter fraud, to reenfranchise every former felon whose rights haven’t yet been restored, and maybe above all, reenfranchise those who rights have been restored, but from mistaken assumption or uncertainty, refuse to vote just to avoid going back to jail for it. Set a clear standard that works for other states: when you’re out of jail, you can vote. Simple.
I know I’ve written essentially those same words before, more than once I’m pretty sure, but another opportunity has presented itself since the election. The fact is the gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary has changed many people’s attitudes towards gun regulation. Maybe having some gun laws isn’t so terrible after all. I’m aware that unlike raising upper income taxes, fixing school financing, marriage equality, and voting rights, gun regulation wasn’t an election. Quite true. However, the public has finally become ready to think about the carnage we inflict on ourselves with crazy gun laws. States can do much on their own to prohibit large capacity magazines. They can develop better record keeping on people suffering dangerous mental illnesses, people seeking to buy guns and ammunition, and above all put those records together. We could put taxes on guns and ammunition to deter impulse purchases (plus every time a Democrat gets elected, the revenue will just flow in!). Even if federal agencies are prohibited by the gun lobby’s laws from keeping records, developing databases, or doing research, the same does not apply to the state. Something we know for sure: people too dangerous to own guns are having little trouble getting them legally. We also learned after seeing the last election’s results that the dreaded NRA isn’t nearly so powerful as politicians have been scared into believing. So the opportunity is here to stop letting fools like Tony Cornish set gun policy.
Just remember: lukewarm water doesn’t clean many messes. Ignoring opportunity is the biggest risk of all.