DFL voters reject tax cuts and neoliberalism at the State Fair

The beans offer proof: People favor proactive public investment

September 6, 2023 8:09 am

People who visited the State Fair used soybeans to pick their favorite issues. A big tax cut trailed far behind. Courtesy photo: DFL Party.

At the State Fair, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party conducted a highly scientific study of voter preferences. Visitors to the party’s booth were given a small number of soybeans and prompted to vote for their favorite policies passed during the 2023 legislative session.

As of 5 p.m. on Labor Day, the rankings (see photos above) were as follows:

  1. Defending abortion access.
  2. 100% clean energy by 2040.
  3. Historic funding for public schools.
  4. Universal school meals.
  5. Universal background checks (gun control).
  6. Free college for low-income families.
  7. Paid family and medical leave.
  8. Legal cannabis.
  9. Making voting easier.
  10. Largest tax cut in state history.
  11. Biggest child tax credit in U.S.
  12. Largest jobs bill in state history.

I am being facetious about the scientific validity of the straw poll, but the results are worth discussing. 

First and foremost, the commanding primacy of abortion access should surprise no one. The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade has proven a dog-catches-car moment for the GOP, whose underperformance in the 2022 midterm was largely credited to a popular defense of reproductive rights. 

The DFL probably didn’t need any reminding of the issue’s importance, but they got it anyway: Voters at the state fair gave “defending abortion access” so many beans that DFL booth workers had to fashion a second cylinder under the same label. 

That’s an important reflection but it was not my inspiration for this column. 

As a tax policy wonk and an enthusiastic believer in the value of public investment, I am eager to point out the surprising lack of enthusiasm for the “largest tax cut in state history,” which finished 10th out of 12, in a near tie for last place. 

The failure of big tax cuts to garner support among State Fair poll participants should raise some eyebrows given the apocryphal notion that everybody hates taxes. Indeed, in a casual and consumer-oriented setting like the State Fair, I might have guessed that lowering taxes would receive at least moderate support. But I would have been underestimating the wisdom of State Fair attendees, who are apparently well aware that the U.S. raises and spends a smaller share of its total wealth than almost any other developed nation, and that Minnesota’s relatively higher taxes have given us the strongest economy in the Midwest and some of the highest quality of life in the country. 

Gov. Tim Walz and many in his party are fond of citing their efforts to cut taxes for working families. The political instinct to play into simplistic notions of economic welfare — lower taxes equals more money in your pocket and a higher quality of life — is understandable. But the State Fair poll suggests Minnesotans — or at least those with the beans — know better.

Workers in higher tax states tend to have higher incomes (often even after taxes are factored in) and they benefit from more public investment. A better-funded government means a higher quality of public services like education and health care. Higher taxes also reduce the necessity of fee-for-use financing like tolls and tuition, and they raise the general standard of living by supporting those struggling to make ends meet and increasing access to public amenities like parks and libraries. 

One way of interpreting the bean poll results is to say that DFL voters understand the tradeoff between taxes and public investment, and they are good with it. That was the attitude shared by 76% of DFL voters and 42% of Republicans when the issue was last polled in 2017.

Another way to interpret the State Fair poll is to say that participants rejected the neoliberal philosophy that government should work primarily to improve markets and maximize economic growth. Minnesotans participating in the DFL’s informal poll would prefer the government focus on what it does best: Guaranteeing public rights and protections, and investing in a brighter collective future. The last-place ranking of “largest jobs bill in MN history” is an interesting data point in this direction. 

Presumably, the DFL poll designers chose the phrase “jobs bill” because it sounded pro-business and pro-economy. But the phrase was actually referring to this year’s bonding bill, which funded $2.6 billion of local government and state agency infrastructure projects. Bonding bills do create jobs, but more importantly they lay the physical foundations of a strong society. Voters were relatively uninterested in a jobs bill (sorry, Rep. Fue Lee!) but perhaps “building roads, bridges and libraries” would have fared better. 

Admittedly, this analysis is a bit anecdotal and speculative. But it’s not nearly as flimsy as the assumption that voters think only in the narrowest self interest. Take for example one 2021 poll by the far-right Center of the American Experiment, which asked Minnesotans how the state should spend its $7.7 billion surplus. Despite the organization’s obvious bias and a somewhat leading question, the poll found that the plurality of respondents favored “greater investment in programs such as education and welfare” and less than 25% wanted permanent tax cuts. Probably not what the authors expected.

The point is, we shouldn’t lazily assume that voters don’t value government or aren’t willing to pay for public services. Tax cuts and business-centric policy is a muddled message for a progressive party, and fans of public investment like myself would like to see DFLers dispense with it altogether. 

Apparently folks at the State Fair agree.

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Eric Harris Bernstein
Eric Harris Bernstein

Eric Bernstein is a policy analyst focused on state tax and budgetary policy. Since the summer of 2020, he has been policy director for We Make Minnesota — a coalition of labor and community groups organizing to raise state revenue for investment in health care, education, racial equity, sustainable environmental stewardship and other public priorities.