With the state Republican convention just three weeks away, the two top contenders for the party's gubernatorial endorsement are fighting over which is a stronger opponent of tax increases.
State Reps. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, and Tom Emmer, R-Delano, are each trying to prove to delegates that they will continue Gov. Tim Pawlenty's opposition to tax increases.
Republicans have firmly established themselves as the party of "no new taxes." During his eight years in office, Pawlenty has held the line on state tax increases.
Seifert took a page from Pawlenty's 2002 campaign playbook earlier this week, when he formally signed the Minnesota Taxpayer's League "No New Taxes" pledge.
"To me, if you're not going to raise taxes, why don't you just come out and say it?" Seifert said. "We head toward a convention and a general election, and people want to know if your commitment is firm and strong, or isn't it?"
Seifert and members of his campaign have called on Emmer to also sign the tax pledge. To date, Emmer has refused, saying in a Web video that he's never signed the pledge and still received a high rating from the Taxpayer's League.
"I've had ample opportunities to vote against tax increases. I would never consider voting for a tax increase," Emmer said. "You have to recognize that we have more than enough revenue."
But in 2003, when Emmer was a member of the Delano City Council, he did vote to raise that city's property tax levy by 16 percent.
Meeting minutes quote Emmer as saying state laws tie the hands of city officials when it comes to setting property tax levies. At the time he also criticized the Legislature for forcing local governments to raise taxes, and warned that property tax caps could put the city "in a no-win situation."
As a legislator, Emmer later voted for a property tax cap. When asked now about that vote, Emmer said the levy increase was needed to offset state aid cuts.
"I voted to fill the hole. I didn't do any new spending. Nothing," Emmer said. "Our city stayed right where it was. Whether you want to say they were paying it into the state and then hoping to get it back, or they were paying it into the city to pay for those services. I made the vote to keep our budget right where it was, because it was very lean at the time."
Despite his 2003 vote, Emmer said his opposition to tax increases is clear.
Seifert said it's not that simple.
"You have a choice in cutting spending. The governor talks about that. The thing boils down to, just don't say, 'I've never ever done something,' if you have," Seifert said. "I have certainly made mistakes or have done things in office, and I 'fess up to it."
Emmer's campaign is capitalizing on that. It's criticizing Seifert for backing Pawlenty's Health Impact Fee in 2005 -- a 75-cent-per-pack charge on cigarettes. Emmer said Seifert is the one who is inconsistent on the tax pledge.
"Is Marty suggesting that somehow his signing a tax pledge, breaking a tax pledge, vowing he'll never sign a tax pledge and then signing a tax pledge again, and my saying, 'Look, I give you my word that we don't have to raise taxes on a state level,' which is what I said consistently," Emmer said.
Seifert said he voted for the Health Impact Fee because it also included an anti-abortion measure, and points out that two members of Congress who were then in the Legislature -- Erik Paulsen and Michele Bachmann -- also voted for the impact fee.
Emmer was also in the Legislature at the time, but he didn't vote on the bill because he was out of the state.
Republican delegates to the state party convention will decide the argument over taxes when they meet to endorse their candidate to run in the November election.
At some point down the line, the campaign rhetoric is sure to shift from holding the line on taxes to raising them. That's because every Democrat running for governor is supporting some kind of tax increase to help fix the state's budget problem.