CAPITOL NOTEBOOK The 'T' word is toxic in Legislature


If there is any one factor that has come to dominate this legislative session, it is the view that raising taxes is just not an option.

The "T" word is toxic. And in one sense, it is just another sign of how the Republican agenda holds sway over the Legislature.

"The no-new-taxes pledge that (Gov. Tim Pawlenty) took and that many of the conservative Republicans subscribed to is framing all of our budget debates," said state Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, an Independent from Rochester.

This session, the anti-tax message has been embraced not just by Republicans but by the supposedly tax-loving Democrats as well. Perhaps it's just them accepting political reality. But except for one thin DFL-backed tax proposal, no one is proposing major tax increases to handle a $160 million budget deficit.


That consensus has had the effect of making the Capitol a quieter place, and a recent rally at the Capitol this week indicated just how much.

The event was sponsored by the Minnesota Taxpayer League, a die-hard, death-to-taxes group. It was timed to coincide with an event certain to whip up indignation at the government, the April 15 deadline for filing tax returns.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the rally: Only a smattering of people showed up. There were speeches and placards and all the usual trappings of a rally, but the wind seemed gone from the organization's sails, as well as the anger and energy.

It was a marked contrast from last year's event, when hundreds of people crowded the halls of the Capitol. One speaker wanly suggested at this week's rally that attendance might be better if it was held on the weekend.

That's not to say that the anger won't bubble up in the future. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has pledged not to raise taxes, also is pushing for public financing of stadiums for the Twins and Vikings. He also is an advocate of the North Star commuter rail line.

DFL targets offshore companies

"When you start having to put (tax proposals) on the table, then you start having constituencies come after you," said Rep. Bill Kuisle, a Republican from Rochester. "(Jesse) Ventura found out when he tried to tax services. Man, they came out of the woodwork to roast him."

But indeed, it is hard to be upset when the only revenue-generating measure that could even be construed as a tax increase is a DFL plan to target offshore companies by closing corporate loopholes. Even Republicans have had a hard time getting miffed about that.


"What offshore company is going to come forward and say, 'not us'?" Kuisle said.

When is a pig not a pig

People don't even like to use the word. Indeed, legislators such as Rep. Tom Rukavina, a DFLer from Virginia, charge that Pawlenty and the Republicans have engaged in semantic games to avoid the "T" word. When court fees went up, "that wasn't called a tax," Rukavina said during a recent hearing. When sales taxes were accelerated on cars and truck, "that wasn't a tax increase," either, he said.

"Somebody around here said, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," Rukavina added.

The verbal jousting was triggered by a bill proposed by Rep. Fran Bradley, a Republican from Rochester, to raise the sin tax on cigarettes. Bradley was asked whether he considered his bill a tax increase.

Bradley didn't deny it was one but defended the bill on the grounds that it was revenue neutral because the increase was offset by lowering fees on businesses.

"For me, this is a balance. I don't care what you call it. Certainly, we do call it a cigarette tax, but it is offsetting another fee or tax, and in my mind, it's the right thing to do," Bradley said.

But Rukavina noted a recent press report about a CEO of a health-care company who made more than $90 million this year. He questioned whether raising taxes on the CEO and people like him with "outrageous" incomes while lowering property taxes on others was a tax increase because it was offsetting.


Republicans from Rochester agree that it will be hard for Pawlenty to adhere to his no-new-taxes pledge next session, especially if the economy doesn't rebound significantly.

"It's going to be very hard if the economy doesn't grow, but I think he's committed to do it," Kuisle said.

That tension between spending needs and dwindling sources of revenue likely will drive the debate over a proposal to install slot machines at Canterbury race track. The governor says he's open to the "racino" idea. The Republican-controlled House has proved it can pass the bill. And the Senate, with its slim Democratic majority, might just pass it if it gets to the floor.

Stay tuned.

Matthew Stolle writes about political issues affecting Southeastern Minnesota. He can be reached at

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