Monday, March 16, 2015

How Minnesota barely escaped Wisconsin's fate

On March 15, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten published an Op-ed in the Huffington Post contrasting the recent economic performance of two very similar upper Midwestern states that have chosen drastically different governments: Minnesota and Wisconsin.

But what we often forget is that Minnesota came perilously close to following Wisconsin to the dark side.

We know the policy story. Wisconsin has been under unified Republican control since the 2010 elections. Governor Scott Walker has spearheaded a hard-right push in state politics: crushing public sector unions, signing “Right-to-Work” legislation that will cripple private sector unions, cutting taxes for the wealthy, stiffing Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, gutting funding for public schools and universities, centralizing power in the governor’s offense, gutting environmental protection, killing useful transportation projects…. Sigh… frankly, to go into detail and finding links is just too depressing. Go read Charlie Pierce so at least you can laugh along with the despair. As Weingarten and others have noted, though, Wisconsin hasn’t performed that well in economic growth or jobs growth.

Minnesota, on the other hand as Weingarten argues, elected Democrat (technically Democrat-Farmer-Labor) Mark Dayton to the Governor’s chair in 2010. Dayton raised taxes on the wealthy, invested in public schools, worked with organized labor and aggressively implemented the Affordable Care Act. The state has performed much better on the economic front than Wisconsin, and indeed the U.S. at large.

But that critical 2010 election actually looked pretty similar in the two states.  In an electoral disaster, Democrats lost majorities in both houses of the Minnesota State Legislature, turning an 87-47 majority in the House into a 72-62 minority. A 46-21 Senate supermajority became a 37-30 minority. In Wisconsin narrow Democratic majorities became a medium-sized 19-14 Republican majority in the Senate and a 58-41 majority in the Assembly.

The Minnesota legislature was interested in many of the same things that Walker wanted – after a budget standoff with Dayton in 2011, they tried to push a “Right-to-Work” law through in a constitutional referendum in 2012, though it failed to make the ballot.

The difference was in the Governor’s Race. Walker beatDemocrat Tom Barrett in a clear though reasonably close election by 120,000 votes out of about 2.2 million cast (52.3 percent to 46.5 percent). Dayton, in contrast, barely squeaked by conservative Republican Tom Emmer by an 8,730 vote plurality out of 2.1 million cast (43.6 percent to 43.2 percent).

Maybe it was Dayton’s higher name-recognition as a former Senator; maybe it was the fact that the incumbent in Minnesota was a Republican and not a Democrat.  But whatever the reason, those 8,730 votes put Minnesota progressives in position to block the attacks on labor and public services that took place in Wisconsin. And they left them in position to push a progressive agenda when Democrats managed to take back both chambers of the state legislature in 2012.  

Let that be a bit more motivation to knock on one more door, make one more phone call and give $10 more in the next state election.

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