By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
LE SUEUR — In 2010, with Republicans sweeping out Democratic incumbents across Minnesota and sweeping into power, Kelby Woodard of Belle Plaine squeaked by DFL Rep. David Bly of Northfield by 37 votes among more than 17,000 cast.
Redistricting following the 2010 census left Northfield and Belle Plaine in separate districts and Rep. Woodard is campaigning in new territory and running against a different Democrat — Ryan Wolf of Le Sueur. For Le Sueur County residents — and most of the western half of the county is in House District 20A — both candidates are new.
Woodard might not have a Republican wave at his back in his re-election run, but the Texas native and Belle Plaine business owner said he’s part of a GOP majority with a solid record to run on.
“The biggest thing that happened over the last two years was we turned that $6.2 billion shortfall into a $1.2 billion surplus,” Woodard said. And it was done without accepting Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed income tax hikes on wealthier Minnesotans.
Wolf, owner of a Le Sueur-based wind energy development company, said that Republican budget solution wasn’t so impressive for middle-class Minnesotans, people who care about education and property owners.
“This is still a Republican-leaning district, but we’re getting out there and spreading the word,” Wolf said. “I’m optimistic about my chances. I think there’s enough discontent with the government shutdown and the property tax increases to make this competitive.”
The improvement in the state budget began before the new Republican majorities in the House and Senate wrote their proposed budget. The $6.2 billion in projected red ink during the 2010 campaign fell to $5 billion when a new budget forecast was released shortly after the 2011 legislative session began.
It was still a whopping deficit, and disagreements between lawmakers and Dayton turned into an impasse that resulted in a three-week government shutdown. Ultimately, a deal was done, and the two-year budget cycle is now expected to end with a surplus.
Some of the problem was shifted into the next budget cycle, however, partly by delaying payments to K-12 schools, and more than $1 billion in red ink is expected to be facing the Legislature in January.
“There’s still a lot to do,” Woodard said. “We’ve got to pay that school shift back.”
State revenue is projected to increase about 3 percent each of the next two years, which Woodard said should be enough to eliminate any deficit and pay back the school shift without raising taxes.
That no-new-taxes approach will only be followed, though, if Republicans retain control in the Nov. 6 elections, he said.
“What Dayton wants to do is raise taxes,” Woodard said. “Without a Republican majority, that sort of philosophy is what will prevail.”
Minnesotans already face a state and local tax burden that’s among the 10 highest in the nation based on figures compiled by the National Tax Foundation, Woodard said.
“Overall, our tax rate isn’t too low, it’s too high,” he said.
Woodard said he doesn’t preclude increases in spending on priority areas such as roads and bridges, K-12 education and programs for the most vulnerable Minnesotans. But that revenue must come by reducing or eliminating duplicative programs.
“Our top priority is the school-shift pay-back,” he said. “There’s some public safety concerns that need to be funded and need to be addressed. Certainly, our sex offender system needs to be reformed.”
He disagrees with DFL criticism of the elimination of the market value homestead credit, saying it was a good move because it provides more certainty for cities and counties and makes their budget decisions more transparent to taxpayers.
Local Government Aid, which involves state aid to cities to help minimize property tax increases, can be held constant in coming years, he said, with increases possible in the future when the state budget is stabilized.
Lawmakers also need to focus more on government efficiency, changes the Republican majority has already gotten under way, Woodard said.
“We’re not doing things the same way, we’re doing them smarter,” he said. “And those are the kinds of reforms we need to continue to push.”
Wolf said the Republican budget plan, largely accepted by Dayton to end the shutdown, disproportionately hurt middle-class and lower-income Minnesotans while protecting the top 2 percent of earners.
“The last budget solution was an all-bruises budget,” Wolf said. “... Who did they ask to take the lumps here? It was our families and it was our children.”
He points to the elimination of the market value homestead credit, a reduction in the renters credit, cuts to higher education and cuts to early childhood education.
“Asking our children to sacrifice,” Wolf said. “Pricing more and more of our middle-class families out of the opportunity for a college education.”
Wolf said he would support Dayton’s general approach of asking wealthier Minnesotans to pay more, although he said the new budget cycle will change how much they should be asked to pay.
“If you’re going to ask our middle-class families and our working families to make a sacrifice, you should ask something from those more fortunate,” he said.
Wolf, like Woodard, wants to use any new revenue first for putting an end to the borrowing from schools. But easing the burden of property taxes is also crucial.
“The school shift repayment and property tax relief, those are going to be my priorities,” he said.
Wolf discounts Republican warnings that Democratic control of the Legislature, combined with Dayton in the governor’s office, means huge tax increases for Minnesotans. Republicans essentially borrowed — from schools and from future tobacco company payments owed the state — to fix most of the deficit, he said.
“They’ve gone hog wild on the credit card and it’s maxed out,” he said.
Wolf said he would also bring an attitude of consensus-building to a state Capitol that’s become too polarized, saying that people he talks to while door-knocking regularly express their frustration about two topics — the government shutdown and their property tax statements.
District 20A is made up of the western half of Le Sueur County, including Le Sueur, Le Center, Cleveland and nearby townships; and southern Scott County, including New Prague, Belle Plaine and Elko New Market.