MINNEAPOLIS — Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen says his previous remarks about raising the sales tax weren't an actual plan of action, that he was simply brainstorming about ways to make the state more business friendly.
This comes as Democrats, including incumbent Gov. Tim Walz, are taking Jensen to task for his tax reform talk, notably the idea of eliminating the state's income tax and replacing part of that gap by raising the sales tax.
"He wants a big income tax cut for millionaires like himself at the same time taxing Minnesotans for clothes and food," Gov. Walz told TV viewers Tuesday night in what will likely be his only televised debate with Jensen.
That claim is now being repeated in a Walz Campaign ad.
"Scott Jensen’s agenda would give huge tax breaks to the wealthiest like himself and to pay for it he would stick you with higher property taxes, a new sales tax on food and clothing," the narrator is heard saying.
Scott Jensen has repeatedly said he'd like to eliminate the state income tax, over time, and make up for the lost revenue through spending cuts, tapping into reserves and looking at other taxes -- including the sales tax.
It's serious business to talk about taxing groceries and clothing in a state where they've always been exempt from the sales tax. That was part of the grand bargain struck in 1967 when the Minnesota Legislature created the sales tax over the objections of then-Gov. Harold Levander.
In a post-debate media scrum Tuesday night Jensen said that's not part of his plan.
"I don't see any sales tax increase. What I see is an opportunity to have a conversation we haven't had in decades."
Jensen's previous comments
So, what's the basis of the sales tax line of attack? The Walz Campaign sites the following line in the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Oct. 1 profile article on Jensen:
"And he said he would look into adding sales tax for some food or clothing."
Jensen's Campaign staff asserts the Republican never said that, but the Star Tribune stands by the reporter's words.
Jensen also pitched the idea of raising the sales tax April 3, when he appeared in Hinckley at the meeting of MaskOffMN, a healthcare freedom group.
"What would Minnesota look like if we didn't have a personal income tax? What if we raised the sales tax another percentage point?" Jensen told the crowd gathered at a local restaurant.
Jensen has faced a lot of questions about his proposal to eliminate the state income tax because it currently accounts for 47% of the tax revenue collected by the state. That equates to roughly $15 billion dollars a year, which goes to schools, healthcare, nursing homes and other General Fund spending.
In a May 27 interview on Minnesota Public Radio, MPR's Mike Mulcahy asked Jensen how we'd replace those dollars.
"If we didn't have an income tax how would make up for that money?" Mulcahy asked.
Jensen listed the sales tax as a possible tool to fill the gap.
"If we were able to get rid of the personal income tax and we raised our sales tax by half a percentage point we start to whittle down on that difference," Jensen told Mulcahy and the radio audience.
More recently, in an Oct. 10 interview on Saint Cloud radio station KNSI-AM, Jensen raised the sales tax option again.
"We have $6 billion dollars a year coming in through sales tax. Sales taxes has the potential, through purchasing power, to grow immensely," Jensen said.
In other words, Jensen asserts that Minnesotans, once relieved of the burden of a state income taxes, would spend more money and that would generate more sales tax revenue.
Democrats are trying to hold Jensen to things he has said on the record about sales tax hikes. He maintains it's not really a firm plan but instead an effort to spark at a larger conversation.
"Often times it becomes this, 'Well, Jensen, you said this, and we're gonna hold you to that,' and that's bottom line," Jensen told reporters in Rochester.
"This is why so many of our ideas and our campaigns become so pedestrian."
He said the state's leaders have been unwilling or unable to have serious conversations about changing the trajectory of government spending. He asks voters to imagine what it would be like if the state had a "sizzling economy" because of a tax climate that's more welcoming to businesses and investors.