For policymakers, history serves as both a guide for learning from the past and a blueprint for successful policies.
Today, Governors and Legislatures across the 50 states often carefully observe what other states are doing right and wrong regarding public policy. Iowa policymakers should examine the principles of Governor Theodore Christianson, who served as Governor of Minnesota during the 1920s. Governor Christianson focused on limiting government, lowering taxes, and increasing government efficiency. These are all principles Iowa policymakers should consider.
Governor Christianson reflected the conservative policies of President Calvin Coolidge. He was a Republican lawyer, newspaper editor, and historian; he also served in the Minnesota Legislature. He was elected Governor in 1924 and served two terms in that office. During his time in office, Governor 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, Governor Christianson was doing the same at the state level in Minnesota. The 1925 Reorganization Act made the state government more efficient, and Governor Christianson argued in his 1925 inaugural message that the executive branch should have more power “to limit and prevent the expenditure of public money.” Cutting taxes and spending was at the center of Governor Christianson’s agenda.
Governor Christianson argued that both the Governor and the Legislature had a responsibility to control spending. As Governor 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.”
In his inaugural message, Christianson urged the Legislature to refrain from excessive spending in the state budget by following these six measures:
We should authorize no new State activities and create no new State institutions.
We should raise no salaries, except when it can be clearly shown that through salary increases it will be possible to obtain the services of administrative heads who can save their salaries through greater efficiency and economy of operation.
We should authorize no construction not imperatively and immediately needed.
We should create no new state obligations.
We should make a careful survey of the administrative code to determine whether it would not be feasible to discontinue some of the State’s activities.
We should not extend any new form of State aid to promote local activity, nor should we accept any new form of Federal aid conditioned on State expenditures.
These recommendations, or “principles,” were necessary for not just the fiscal health of Minnesota, but also protecting the interests of the taxpayer. Governor Christianson’s recommendations could be made to many state policymakers today.
Governor Christian also urged the Legislature to lower taxes. Like President Coolidge, he argued that following “economy in government” and lowering taxes would benefit everyone in the economy. As Governor 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.”
Governor 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,” stated Christianson.
Governor 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.”
Governor Theodore Christianson, a champion of limited government in Minnesota, is an example for state policy leaders across the nation. The principles of lowering tax rates, reducing spending, and making state government more efficient are all policies that are needed in Iowa. Iowa policymakers should follow Governor Christianson’s policy model for state government.