07/14/2011 11:40 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2011

Tax Your Local Millionaire? Minnesota's Question, Oregon's Answer

First, Oregon.

In 2010, the Oregon state budget was three-quarters of a billion ($727 million) in the hole -- a lot for a small state. So did they go with a "cuts-only" budget, i.e. shut down schools and services and to Hell with the poor?

No, they just raised taxes. Democrats proposed it, Republicans (naturally) opposed. So the choice was laid before the voters.

"Measure 66 raise(d) taxes on households with taxable income above $250,000, and Measure 67 set... higher minimum taxes on corporations and increase(d) the tax rate on upper-level profits."

The measure passed easily. The rich had to pay a little bit more, and the state balanced its budget.

They just took care of business: not very exciting.

But there is plenty of drama in Minnesota.

As you recall, Minnesota's state government has shut down all but essential services, with 22,000 public employees (roughly 2/3 of all state workers) sent home without pay. Construction contracts are not going forward, state parks are trashed by vandals; it took a judge's ruling to allow one solitary state employee to coordinate private charity's shipments of food to the hungry.

("Judge gives okay for Minnesota food bank deliveries during shutdown," Duluth New Tribune, July 4, 2011.)

Why? Ask the party in charge.

Republicans control both houses of the legislature in Minnesota. Fixing the problem would require a two per cent tax increase -- on the state's millionaires.

Let me say that again. Governor Mark Dayton (D) would like to impose a very small tax increase on people who make more than one million dollars a year -- and that tax would only apply to the money in excess of one million dollars earned each year. This would inconvenience only the wealthiest 7,700 earners in the state, 3,800 who live in Minnesota and 3,900 who earn an income there, but don't call Minnesota home.

Would the Republicans consider such a miniscule tax increase?


Most of them had signed the famous Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge. Mr. Norquist is apparently quite a fearsome individual, seemingly in command of the Republican party's anti-tax policy. His group, Americans for Tax Reform, has a "Taxpayer Protection Pledge", and if you sign it and then even think about adding taxes, he will get quite upset.

Example: One of America's most conservative Republicans is Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla).

But when Coburn "suggested that the oath he took to the Constitution might outweigh his pledge to the anti-taxers", Norquist replied: "Coburn said on national TV today that he lied his way into office and will vote to raise taxes if he damn well feels like it, never mind what he promised the citizens of Oklahoma."

Does not a promise to protect the Constitution of the United States take precedence over whatever relations a public servant has with a lobbying group?

When a man or woman puts their right hand on the Bible and swears to protect the Constitution (and presumably the people for whom the constitution stands) he or she swears their most solemn and binding oath "without any mental reservations"-- is that not the most serious promise a public servant can make?

To me, the oath of office is like a wedding vow. Once you say,"I do" and promise to be faithful to one person, are not all earlier flirtations swept aside?

Does a promise to Grover Norquist's lobbying group outweigh the oath of office?

But maybe to Mr. Norquist, a government shut down is not a bad thing. This is the man famous for saying he wanted to shrink government to a size he could "drown in a bathtub".

If Minnesota can no longer distribute federal commodities to food banks -- hunger is no problem for a millionaire. No regulation of industry? That is a key Republican goal. No state-funded child-care? The wealthy don't need anybody to watch the baby so they can hold down a minimum wage job. Services for the deaf or disabled? If you have money, you hire those things. And if enough people are out of work, wage demands will not be high.

So what is the Republican answer to the Minnesota catastrophe? Not much.

They offer more tax cuts (an additional $200 million worth) for the wealthy. Next, they offered to delay the funding of schools for a while (more debt), and finally, they want government to borrow against the tobacco settlement.

Remember the tobacco lawsuits, when Big Tobacco executives swore under oath they knew of no connection between cancer and smoking? Republicans fought hard against holding the tobacco barons accountable for the billions in health care costs and loss of life their product seemingly caused. But they lost, and now there is money coming into Minnesota from the tobacco settlement. The Republican offer would let the Governor to borrow against future tobacco settlement payments--more debt.

So there is the GOP position: tax cuts for the rich, delay of funding for public schools, and an increased debt burden on the state.

But wait, there's still more! Astoundingly, they actually wanted political concessions too.

The night before the Minnesota budget deal was supposed to be agreed on, Republican negotiators added a bagful of pure ideology to their requirements.

Here are just five of the numerous laws they wanted imposed.

1. Requiring a government-issued voter ID card.

2. School vouchers.

3. Further restrictions on a woman's right to choose.

4. Bans on advanced stem cell research.

5. A systematic weakening of the collective bargaining rights of working men and women.

To his credit, these conditions were immediately rejected by Governor Dayton.

Curious about what Republicans want for America tomorrow? Look to Minnesota today.

As State Representative Carly Melin put it in a personal communication:

"The State of Minnesota is being held hostage so that 0.3% of Minnesotans don't have to pay a penny more in taxes. All Minnesotans, including the wealthy, should be part of a budget solution. The Republicans have made clear they have no genuine interest in jobs or the economy. Their interest is advancing their radical social agenda and further dividing the equality gap between the rich and the rest of us." -- State Representative Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing).

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