‘More Ted, Less Taxes’ – A lesson for state and local policymakers
Minnesota hasn’t always been plagued by governors who seek to raise taxes at every opportunity for any – or even no – reason whatsoever. John Hendrickson, Policy Director of the Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation and exiled Minnesotan, tells the story of Gov. Theodore Christianson.
Gov. Theodore Christianson reflected the conservative policies of President Calvin Coolidge. He was a lawyer, newspaper editor, and historian; he also served in the Minnesota Legislature. He was elected governor in 1924 and served three terms in that office. During his time in office, Gov. Christianson made fiscal prudence, or “economy in government,” a priority. He campaigned on slogans such as “More Ted, Less Taxes” and was given the nickname “Tightwad Ted.” He described himself as a true “liberal” – that is, in the old-fashioned sense of the word.
While President Calvin Coolidge was cutting tax rates, reducing spending and paying down the national debt at the federal level, Gov. Christianson was doing the same in Minnesota. As a former legislator and chair of the Appropriations Committee, Christianson understood the budget and also the numerous special interests that were fighting for more spending.
As governor, Christianson was the first executive to use the veto power extensively in an effort to limit spending. Gov. Christianson during his 1926 campaign celebrated his use of the veto in 1925 that saved taxpayers over $1.8 million. During the 1929 legislative session, Christianson vetoed three appropriations that accounted for over $15 million. These are just a few examples of the vetoes of Gov. Christianson, which totaled 76 during his time in office, saving taxpayers close to $18 million.
One of the major government reform initiatives that occurred under his watch was the 1925 Reorganization Act, which made the state government more efficient by limiting bureaucracy. Christianson argued that reforming state government by making it leaner was a good policy, but it was even more important to achieve the goal of making it more difficult for government to spend taxpayer dollars.
Gov. Christianson argued in his 1925 Inaugural Address that the executive branch should have more power “to limit and prevent the expenditure of public money.” He argued that both the governor and the Legislature had a responsibility to control spending. As Gov. Christianson stated, “Giving the Executive power to limit expenditures in no wise relieves the Legislature of responsibility to hold down appropriations. The Legislature from time immemorial has been the taxpayer’s last line of defense. Its power to limit or withhold revenue it must not and cannot relinquish.” Although the Legislature often clashed with Gov. Christianson over his use of the veto, it was successful in limiting spending.
Gov. Christian also urged the Legislature to lower taxes. During one of his campaigns, Christianson told voters that his fiscal agenda included reducing the tax levy, creating no new obligations for the state, and safeguarding and increasing the trust funds. Further, he called for the paying down of state debt and he established a goal of a “bondless state by 1935.”
Since Minnesota at this time did not have an income tax, Christianson argued that a fiscal conservative policy agenda should serve as an example for local governments to allow lower property taxes. “Economy in state government should set an example for communities,” Christianson said.
The New York Times reported toward the end of his time in office that Christianson has made tax relief a “chief undertaking of his administration.” Similar to President Coolidge, he argued that following “economy in government” and lowering taxes would benefit everyone in the economy.
As Gov. Christianson stated, “The best thing the State of Minnesota can do for the farmer, the laborer, or any other man, is to relieve him, so far as it may be done, of the burdens it has imposed on him. Reduce taxes, and farms will yield a larger net return. Reduce taxes, and the manufacturer can make goods and the merchant sell them at a lower price, and the laborer’s wage will have greater purchasing power.”
Gov. Christianson also reminded members of the Legislature that they did not have to solve every problem that confronted the state. “Inasmuch as most of my public service has been in the legislative branch of the government, I can say without offense that Legislatures sin more often by enacting laws than by defeating proposed measures,” Christianson said.
Gov. Christianson advised the Minnesota Legislature not to be hasty in voting for legislation. “‘When in doubt, vote No,’ might well be emblazoned over the door of every legislative hall,” stated Christianson, foreshadowing the advice of a future conservative, Senator Barry M. Goldwater. In addition, Christianson told the Legislature “it would be to the credit of the 1925 Legislature if it should pass fewer laws than any of its predecessors.”
The principles of lowering tax rates, reducing spending, reducing debt, and making state government more efficient are all policies that lead to making a state more competitive. It should also be remembered that not only was Christianson a fiscal conservative, but he also placed an emphasis on law and order by fighting crime.
The Washington Post in reporting the death of Gov. Christianson wrote that he was a “staunch Republican who devoted himself to curbing the mounting cost of state government and reducing state indebtedness.” Gov. Theodore Christianson, a champion of limited government in Minnesota, is an example for state and local policy leaders across the nation.
This op ed originally appeared at The Center Square on February 8th, 2023