Schools, taxes and Downtown

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September 24, 2002 // UPDATED 1:31 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Kevin Featherly
Kevin Featherly

Governor candidates state their cases

Roger Moe thinks schools are accountable enough, and now it's time to make sure they are "fairly funded." Ken Pentel would tie property taxes to income, asking the neediest to pay the least. Tim Penny would eliminate special education programs from the local school district budgets and make the state pay. And Tim Pawlenty denies that there was a Santa clause written into the tax reforms he supported, which have put the bite on schools.

These are just some of the positions revealed in a series of Skyway News interviews with the four major candidates for governor conducted last month. (Of the four, only Tim Pawlenty failed to appear for a scheduled face-to-face meeting; his interview was conducted by phone.)

All candidates were asked the same basic questions, with follow-ups directed at candidates based on their unique answers.

This week, Skyway News is publishing online the second and final installment of transcripts of our interviews with DFL candidate Moe, Republican Pawlenty, the Green Party's Pentel and Independence Party hopeful Penny. The full conversations are at www.skywaynews.net and provide the most depth and purest flavor of the discussions and candidate positions.

Here are the final newspaper excerpts:

Skyway News: Tax reform has shifted taxes from businesses and industries onto homeowners, with the most significant new burden falling on lower income people. Do you agree with that shift?

Ken Pentel: No. ... I would probably start tying property taxes to income, the ability to pay. That's where probably all my taxes will go with issues around property, sales and income [tax]. It will all lead to who has the money and who doesn't. ... It's time for people who care about their society, who have benefited from the riches, to reinvest in those areas that we need money if we're going to prevent problems down the road. Because all that money is about is prevention of problems.

Tim Penny: In general terms I think it's the right approach. I think commercial property was taxed at too high a rate and industrial properties were taxed at too high a rate, and these reforms have brought some relief in those areas. I also think that it made sense to move school funding to the state level, as an accountability factor. Over time, I would like to move special education off the local budget and entirely at the state level. And then, it allows and empowers the local school board to actually make decisions about additional dollars that they would raise through the property tax, with accountability to their local voters as to how they spend that money. All in all, this points us in the direction of a more accountable school funding system.

Tim Pawlenty: Overall, the property tax reform bill of a year and a half ago was a good bill.... The premise behind the bill was not so much a Santa Claus notion that everybody was going to have lower property taxes forever; that's not realistic when valuations are going up and government spending is going up into double digits every year. ... Under the old system, it was so convoluted that the state would blame the local units of government, they would blame the state, everyone was pointing fingers at everybody else. The taxpayers were confused and there was no accountability.

Roger Moe: I voted against the 2001 tax bill. ... When the promises were made, I said that you're not going to deliver on these promises, and I'm right. They promised everybody double-digit tax relief. ... One-fourth of the homes in Hennepin County saw their property tax go up. ... I think one of the worst things that can happen is when the politicians promise something and it doesn't come to pass. ... The irony of this tax reform bill was ... on the Department of Revenues figures for payable '02 as it relates to homes...the net property tax reductions go down 12 percent. And they project that payable '03 will go up 12.4 percent.... So, in an election year, you get a tax reduction, and the next year it's going back up.

Skyway News: State tax reform has been held up as having a stabilizing effect on schools but has resulted in $31 million in cuts for the Minneapolis school district's budget. Would you increase school funding beyond the rate of inflation, or would you cut school funding even further?

Penny: I won't hold out a promise, because we have a $2 billion hole in the budget right now. ... I don't want to promise inflation-plus, when first of all we don't have the money in the bank, and secondly we may be able to find other ways to free up money in the system and redirect that money into the classroom. There will likely be an increase in the state funding formula in the coming biennium. We will likely propose an increase. I just don't want to over-promise what that increase might be, and I want the funding level to be viewed in a broader context. There may be mandates and requirements that we can eliminate that would be as good as money in the bank.

Pawlenty: You're saying that Minneapolis' total school operating budget decreased in real terms by $31 million this year? Ah, I don't think so. You've got to be careful first of all how school district officials define cuts. ... Usually it means that they are reducing programs that they had planned for earlier, but for most people, the definition of a cut is you're spending less than you did last year. ... The school funding formula is broken, it needs to be fundamentally overhauled ... we've got school districts in Minnesota with total revenues -- federal, state and local -- spending as little as $6,000 per student. We have other school districts like Minneapolis with federal, state and local revenue spending nearly $11,000 per student and everything in between. ... That's not an affront to the school, that's just problems in the society that we need to address more broadly. ... I'm not averse to more funding for schools, I just want to make sure we get more value from the amount of money that we are spending.

Moe: Well, I think we've got to fairly fund the schools. You've got to make sure that we fund our schools so that you don't force them back to the property taxes. ... That's basically why I have been focusing on that whole issue of making sure that we get the kids early in life, preparing them for school with aggressive reading programs. ... I don't know any public institution that is looked at more, analyzed more, dissected more and more people have an opinion on it, than public education. So, I think there is accountability. ... The first challenge that I would have would be to be able to meet the rate of inflation.

Pentel: The costs of schools are tied to other areas that we're going to have to reduce if we're going to really reduce the cost of schools, really get them on track. ... We've got to bear down, because poverty is a great strain on the schools. So in my economic plan, my goal is to make sure that we reduce certain costs so that in that first five-year period of life for a child, they are healthy and stable. We make sure that we take care of their basic healthcare, their housing, their basic community stability. There's economic investment, ideally micro-lending going on in poverty-stricken areas. So we stabilize that condition. ... Ideally, I want to set a vision as well, just, where do we want to go with a child in a classroom, and fund it.

Skyway News: What we've asked you so far is an attempt to get the readers to know you; now we want to give the readers a chance to know how well you know them. Tell us what you've done to experience Minneapolis and Downtown?

Pawlenty: I worked [as a lawyer] in Downtown Minneapolis for 16 or so years, and so I'm very familiar with Downtown Minneapolis. I spent most of my waking hours there. ... I recognize that Minneapolis and St. Paul together are our urban centers. We can't have a healthy region or a healthy state unless our central cities are healthy and stable. And if you're going to be the governor you've got to be the governor for the whole state. It doesn't mean I'm the governor of Eagan, I'm the governor of Minnesota. And whether it's Minneapolis or whether it's Montevideo or Moorhead, you've got to take the time to understand the unique needs and challenges of these areas and you've got to bring forward representation for the whole state. And I believe in that pretty genuinely.

Moe: If you're asking me could I tell you exactly what's on the intersection of 50th and Bryant? Probably not. But do I understand the city's significance in our economy? You bet I do. Do I understand some of the unique problems of a school district that has 80-some languages spoken in it? Yes, I do. Do I understand how important it is to have healthy, vibrant center cities with neighborhoods that are attractive and vibrant as well? Yes I do.... I've spent more than half of my life driving on your roads, reading your newspapers, immersed in public policy. So I bring to all of this a very, very intimate knowledge of what happens here.

Pentel: Minneapolis is generally what I consider my hometown. ... I've been moving. I was over near the Guthrie and Loring Park area, and now I've got a place over on Fremont. ... So basically, my experiences are varied. I used to work in Downtown Minneapolis in the early '80s at the Marquette Hotel, spent a lot of time in there. My first job was at a Country Kitchen in Hopkins. My first job after that, I was 16 years old, was as a busboy at the Sheraton Ritz Hotel in Downtown Minneapolis. I was a busboy there at the Cheshire Cheese Room, where they used to serve a yard. I loved the yard. But I was too young to be drinking then.

Penny: For a southern Minnesotan, I have come to know the Twin Cities very well. Specific to the last eight years, I have worked in the Twin Cities three and four days a week, so I'm commuting here all the time. ... A lot of my work kind of takes me to venues all over the metro area -- the convention centers, the various hotels and restaurants where there are various meetings related to my work life. ... I'm a season Vikings ticket holder, and I just went to the Twins game yesterday with one of my sons. ... When I leave a Vikings game or a Twins game I often head down Lyndale instead of the interstate. ... Look, I know my way around the Twin Cities very well, but I'm certainly very well familiar with this part of Minneapolis for a variety of reasons -- my work life, my family life. And because of those two factors it has allowed me to learn and take advantage of a lot of the cultural life in this part of the city.