My Point of View: It’s time to rebuild the state’s middle class core

Published 10:00 pm Monday, July 16, 2018

My Point of View, By Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

A weak core “saps power from many of the moves you make. Properly building up your core cranks up the power. A strong core also enhances balance and stability.”

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

This advice on personal fitness from Harvard Medical School could apply to society as well. The strength of our communities and a civil, democratic society depends on a robust middle class at our core.

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We need a state representative who will stand up for the economic interests of working families and rebuild our eroding middle class instead of kowtowing to the agenda of wealthy donors.

In March, our state representative, Peggy Bennett, voted against ratifying the contracts for 42,527 state employees belonging to a variety of unions, including the Minnesota Nurses Association and AFSCME. These are people who fulfill vital roles like plowing our roads and caring for our sick. Rep. Bennett voted against a modest increase in their compensation.

This was not a party line vote — 93 in the House voted for it, and only 33 against. (The Senate voted 66-10 in favor of ratification.) Bennett voted against these middle class workers and their families with a minority of right wing legislators.

For most working families, wage increases and public spending are a greater boon than tax cuts. Tax cuts may sound good, but they typically peel away vital public spending on health, education and transportation and heavily favor people who are already well-to-do. This strips from our core and aids the elite donor class.

Though miserly on modest wage increases for middle class families, Bennett dollops out desserts to the wealthiest among us — last year she voted for a tax measure that slashes the estate tax and helps cement inequality. In an update, she put it in the guise of helping farmers: “Farms will also benefit from a measure conforming the state death tax to the federal exclusion.”

How many farmers were affected by that in Freeborn County? Maybe one or two per year, and we can rest assured that they had enough resources to hire a competent estate planner. I have yet to hear the name of a single farmer in Minnesota, much less District 27A, whose heirs lost their farm over estate taxes. If Republicans can find one, they should put their name on the next bill, which would likely aim to “conform” to the latest jump in the federal exemption ($22.36 million per couple in 2018). If they seek to overturn state estate taxes entirely to appease wealthy donors, they should name it in honor of the biggest eventual beneficiaries: the MacMillans.

Incidentally, Whitney MacMillan Sr. and Jr. have been generous, exclusive Republican campaign donors for at least the past 10 years according to campaign contribution records. Whitney Sr.’s heirs stand to gain a nice return on his “investment.” Glen Taylor is another aging Minnesota billionaire with a lavish record of donating to Republicans.

Cutting the estate tax is tax relief for the state’s wealthiest families alone, and Rep. Bennett and other Republicans disingenuously frame it as a measure that helps our farmers, even though it doesn’t save farms in any meaningful way. In fact, it makes it easier for the handful of farmers who inherit the most wealth to buy up more land. That can squeeze out their smaller neighbors and heighten entry barriers to farming, further reducing the number of farms. It reinforces the equivalent of a landed aristocracy.

Our middle class has withered over the past 40 years while the top 1 percent has consolidated a greater and greater share of wealth. Class warfare is already on, and one side is crushing it. It’s like playing a game of Monopoly with a player who starts with all the railroads, hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk, and a string of houses lining the avenues. The rest of the players owe $150 of every $200 they collect at Go to pay off student loans and medical debts.

Maybe that sounds silly, but consider this — we live in a society where the top 1 percent now controls 40 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 60 percent of households have only 2 percent. The bottom 20 percent are actually in debt. This is the reality we’re living in, and it’s wasting human potential and lowering social mobility.

In her current term, Bennett helped pad the pockets of the wealthy few and tried to reject a modest compensation increase for tens of thousands of working Minnesota families. It’s way past time to stop voting for politicians who capitulate to the narrow and greedy self-interests of their party’s wealthy donors.

Fortunately we have a candidate for 27A with the energy and backbone to help us rebuild our essential middle class core. As a farmer, teacher, and businessman, Terry Gjersvik has the experience and voice our working families need in St. Paul.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.