Republican lawmakers oppose tax increases
BEMDIJI, Minn. - State government needs to live within its means, says House Minority Leader Marty Seifert.
That means his House Republican Caucus will back up GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty on any veto he makes on DFL tax increases, which is expected.
"We do have a surplus," Seifert, R-Marshall, said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "The governor did put 9.3 percent (state budget increase) on the table. If you've got different priorities, then shift the shells around and try to make it work."
The DFL-led House would boost state income taxes $543 million, targeting most to property tax relief. The DFL-controlled Senate on Saturday approved a $991 million tax hike, with $444 million of it added to education spending.
Both plans rely on creating a fourth state income tax tier for the state's most wealthy, the House at 9 percent for couples making more than $400,000 and the Senate at 9.7 percent for couples making more than $250,000.
"There is more money than what we projected," Seifert said of a $2.1 billion state budget surplus. "If we could balance the budget when there was a $4.5 billion deficit, why in the world would we raise taxes now?"
With lawmakers at home this week for the Easter/Passover holiday, Seifert is traveling southern Minnesota, talking to newspapers and Main Street businesses, while calling northern Minnesota newspapers. He chided the Pioneer, saying there isn't a Republican legislator for a few hundred miles.
Seifert accused Democrats of creating distractions now when they promised last fall to campaign on "bread and butter" issues.
"The governor said he was willing to put aside the gay marriage issue, because a lot of people said that was a distraction," Seifert said of efforts for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. "So what do the Democrats do -- they bring up gay marriage-type benefits for state employees and put it into the state government finance bill."
If the issue was distracting when conservatives brought it up, why then "is it not distracting, a waste of time and a poison pill" when Democrats bring it up, he asks.
Similarly, Pawlenty agreed to drop proposals to stem illegal immigration but the DFL stands behind efforts to allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates for higher education, an item rolled into the higher education omnibus bill.
"We're looking for some consistency," Seifert said. "When the pots are calling the kettles black last year, what is going on here? We're trying to find common ground on some of these issues."
The public also never heard anything from DFLers about tax increases last fall, he added.
"Did you hear about them talking about making us the No. 1 income tax state in the country?" he asked, as the Senate DFL's new tax bracket would make it top in the nation for that level of income.
Pawlenty's state budget calls for a 9.3 percent increase, with Seifert noting that Marshall is similar to Bemidji as a regional center with a four-year college. "My families' incomes aren't growing at that rate. When government grows faster than what people's personal income grows, people fall behind."
The DFL would tax job producers, he said, while at the same time repealing welfare-to-work provisions, making it easier for people to qualify for welfare.
"They would allow more non-citizens to qualify for programs," he said. "We have one of the most generous welfare programs in the country. The word has gotten out on that to the point we have 4,000 to 6,000 people a year who now move to Minnesota and apply for welfare within the first two months of arriving."
With the DFL in charge of both chambers, Seifert admits the policy direction will be liberal, but that Pawlenty "will bring the discussion back to the middle. I think we went way off of left field recently."
The two-year state budget will grow from $31 billion to $34 billion, "so when people say no new taxes, it's a misnomer when the fact of the matter is the government is growing and it is going to be bigger."
People have a mistaken notion that if taxes aren't raised, government won't have more money, Seifert said. "That's just not the case. ... We have more income coming in, let's live within our means like a regular family does."
The compromise needed to be reached, he said, is to use the available surplus and divide it among priorities of education, health care and property tax relief. And one-time money needs to go to one-time projects like transportation.
While Democrats maintain that the state must invest in programs such as health insurance for all children or all-day, every-day kindergarten, Seifert says investments still must be made within the available resources.
In education, Republicans' top priority is the "Glide Path to Equity" program where per pupil aid is the same for rural students as it is for Minneapolis/St. Paul students. Now, kids in rural Minnesota receive thousands of dollars less per child than metro schools, Seifert said.
"A kid in Bemidji should be funded the same as a kid in Minneapolis," he said, also noting that school lets out about an hour earlier in metro schools than western Minnesota schools. "So they're getting more money per kid, and they're delivering less as a result -- test scores, the time spent in school, homework required, discipline, attendance, truancy."
In health care, Republicans want equity for providers, with state reimbursement rates the same for hospitals and nursing homes whether in rural or urban Minnesota. Now, those formulas favor urban providers.
The governor's pitch for a 9.3 percent state budget increase "is about as much as we can handle on the House Republican side," Seifert said. "We see that as a ceiling, and the House and Senate Democrats see it as a floor."
With the Senate DFL setting such a high mark for taxes -- a $991 million increase -- doesn't mean that Pawlenty will approve a tax increase of something lesser, Seifert said.
"They see it as the opening bid at the auction, but it that's the opening bid, that means we have to have a tax increase," he said. "They pulled a whole medicine cabinet of poison pills out ... the average person out there is not buying the elixir that they're selling."
Thinking Pawlenty will meet the DFL halfway with a tax increase is ridiculous, the House GOP leader said. "If the governor played the game the way they want to, he would have put on the table a $2 billion tax cut, and said he'd meet them halfway -- give me a $1 billion tax cut."
Knowing Pawlenty will veto any tax increase, Seifert said the DFL Legislature should send those bills soon, and then spendthe remaining weeks in earnest on bills sans tax hikes.
"I would highly recommend that they get their first round of bills, if they're going to go down the road of tax increases and poison pills, that they get them done in April so they can vetoed and then get the next round done," Seifert said.
"Then there will be three weeks in May to actually get serious and get the real bills done so we don't have a special session," he said.
The Bemidji Pioneer and the West Central Tribune are owned by Forum Communications.