Emmer’s hazy rhetoric

Time is running out for candidate Tom Emmer to unveil his budget plan.

by Michael Rietmulder

Debate is an integral part of the political process in America. Whether chivalrous or irascible, it serves as a venue for exchanging and vetting competing ideas.

On the campaign trail, public debates allow each candidate’s ideas to be heard and weighed against one another by potential voters, assuming they can intelligibly sift through the barrage of talking points and made-to-order retorts to find nuggets of “straight talk.”

Thanks in part to an early primary, Minnesotans have already been treated to an unusually high number of gubernatorial debates, as DFLer Mark Dayton , Republican Tom Emmer , and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner , clamor to succeed outgoing Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty as Minnesota’s next majordomo.

However, not all the three major party candidates have been entirely forthcoming when it comes to how they will tackle the biggest issue our next governor will have to address: how to solve a $6 billion budget deficit.

Both Dayton and Horner have released their plans, exposing themselves to the criticism that accompanies tough decision making.

Dayton’s solution favors raising revenue by imposing higher tax rates for individuals earning more than $130,000 per year and on couples earning more than $150,000. According to Dayton’s plan, restoring “tax fairness” would generate $4 billion for the state. He has also proposed nearly $572 million in spending cuts, which include reducing the amount spent on private contracting and renegotiating leases on state office buildings.

Horner’s budget plan, which calls for $2.45 billion in cuts and $2.15 billion in additional revenue, is more temperate than Dayton’s. Horner would broaden the sales tax to include clothing, while reducing spending on county aid programs and impose a state hiring freeze beginning Jan. 1, 2011.

But Emmer, an outspoken state representative from Delano, Minn., has been uncharacteristically reticent when it comes to budget specifics. Much like Pawlenty, Emmer has said that he will not raise taxes and has indicated that he will slash his way toward a balanced budget, but has not divulged where he will make his cuts.

Emmer has taken his political lumps in recent debates for not putting forth a budget plan.

At Friday’s debate at the Minnesota State Fair, the budget was the first item on the menu, and Dayton wasted little time in going on the offensive. “These are unpopular realities that one of us is going to inherit,” Dayton said. “I think with 60 days left in this campaign, it’s important that you give the people of Minnesota the facts about how you’re going to eliminate that deficit.”

“We will be offering a plan,” Emmer responded, “but our plan is going to work for all of Minnesotans, not just for a few. It’s going to work for everybody.”

Sounds wonderful, Mr. Emmer. But would you mind explaining how it’s going to work exactly?

We know where Emmer stands ideologically, as he routinely espouses the familiar theme of smaller government popular in conservative crowds. Yet it remains unclear how he would reduce the size of government.

And the devil is in the details.

Would he cut K-12 education funding, which comprises 37 percent of state spending , likely resulting in teacher layoffs and increased class sizes? Would he pare spending on higher education, driving up already high tuition costs? Or perhaps he would reduce local government aid, causing property taxes to soar.

Until we see his budget proposal, we have little idea what an Emmer-run Minnesota would look like.

A recent poll conducted by Minnesota Public Radio News and the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs found that 81 percent of voters have already selected their preferred candidate. Emmer and Dayton were shown to be neck and neck at 34 percent each.

For the 19 percent who remain undecided, Emmer’s budget ambiguity should be especially vexing.

It is this demographic of voters who will tip the scale one way or the other, and they deserve to have all the information necessary to make an educated decision.

Emmer’s camp was initially planning on releasing their budget details in October, opening it up for scrutiny for only a few weeks before voters head to the polls. But as calls for Emmer to reveal his plan have mounted, he is expected to release a portion of it sometime this week.

Once the details of Emmer’s budget plan are unfurled, then meaningful and substantive debate will hopefully take the place of pointed rhetoric and frivolous statements aimed at riling up an already disgruntled constituency.