Minnesota 2020 Journal: Moving on Minnesota’s Agenda
Minnesotans spoke clearly on Election Day, rejecting failed conservative public policy. Tuesday’s results warmed my heart and affirmed my faith in Minnesotans’ clear-headed comprehension of our state’s problems and opportunities. Minnesotans understand what’s not working. They expect a balanced approach, not more division and distraction.
Waking up Wednesday morning, I felt pretty good. Common sense prevailed. But, rejecting conservative extremism isn’t the same as charting Minnesota’s next public policy steps. Policymakers face real challenges when they convene in January. The question now is how to move forward, responding to electoral direction. To do that, let’s consider the lessons of the last two years.
First, anger begets anger. Politics and policymaking are emotionally-charged activities. That’s what makes them interesting and fun. Smart policy addresses problems and responds to changing needs. Smart policy doesn’t snub or punish. Look no further than Minnesota’s eastern neighbor, Wisconsin.
Conservative Governor Scott Walker, seeking to capitalize on recession-driven 2010 voter discontent, surprised Wisconsin. Instead of focusing on economic development and job growth as he’d campaigned, Walker went after public sector labor unions. He caused one of the most divisive, angry political and policy moments in the state’s history tying the state up in knots. Which, gets to my second point.
Don’t misinterpret a narrow electoral result as a broad mandate. In 2010, Minnesotans elected a Democratic Governor but they also elected enough Republicans to lead the State House and the State Senate, the first time that’s happened in decades. Governor Dayton proposed tax fairness. Conservative legislators, working to preserve Pawlenty-era tax policy that favors Minnesota’s highest income earners, countered with an extreme social policy agenda.
They proposed amending Minnesota’s constitution, permanently encoding a gay marriage ban and narrowing Minnesota’s voting path. Due to Governor Dayton’s opposition, legislative conservatives used their majorities to by-pass Dayton, putting the measures directly before Minnesota voters. And, Minnesota voters chose, defeating both amendments. Voter ID received 46% of the vote; the marriage restriction proposal received 48%.
As a matter of electoral strategy, deliberately creating social agenda issue distractions fails when the distractions take center stage. From a conservative perspective, the two amendments were supposed to pass while also preventing a larger consideration of tax fairness, education, healthcare and job-creating economic development needs. Instead, Minnesotans saw through the ruse and voted accordingly.
That being said, it’s important to understand that Minnesota remains a divided state. Slightly less than half of voters support a conservative agenda. Many conservatives worry about Minnesota’s future prosperity, believing that progressive solutions will contribute to rather than resolve our state’s challenges. Consequently, progressive legislators must be prepared to listen to elected conservatives as well as conservative Minnesotans. Anger, no matter how keenly felt over the last two years, won’t move Minnesota forward. Progressive policy communication is the new majorities’ most important task.
Let’s focus on what really matters: education, healthcare, infrastructure and growing jobs. Responsible, responsive state public policy crafts a plan that addresses real needs, implementing reasonable solutions. To that end, let me make four suggestions.
First, build an economy that keeps Minnesota competitive and creates good jobs. Through geography and climate, Minnesota has developed a diverse economy. That’s a strength. It’s our hole card, an asset to leverage, and our path forward.
Second, provide our children with a good education. Great schools create opportunity by producing capable graduates and by anchoring communities. Our educational tradition, starting from before kindergarten and carrying on into higher education, prepares a nimble, flexible workforce.
Third, reform state government to work better for Minnesotans. Government is not an end in itself; it’s a work in progress. We assign government the task of acting on our collective desires for safety, security and prosperity. Sturdy roads and bridges, for example, serve multiple purposes. They facilitate commerce and work, ensuring smooth delivery of goods to markets. They also are central to a free society’s choice and movement. It’s not one or the other, but both.
Fourth, balance Minnesota’s state budget in a fair and responsible way. Under conservative policymaking leadership, Minnesota has maintained a tax structure that asks less of Minnesota’s highest income earners and asks more of low and middle income Minnesotans. Further, state budget cuts over the past dozen years have increasingly shifted costs from a progressive income tax basis to a growing reliance on regressive property taxes.
State policymakers, in order to claim that they didn’t raise taxes, simply cut Minnesota’s innovative and tax-efficient state revenue sharing program. Those decisions forced elected community and school leaders to both raise property taxes—the only tax option that they control—and to slash budgets. Tuesday’s electoral result reflected Minnesotans’ dissatisfaction with this policy choice.
A balanced approach moves Minnesota forward. Voters spoke clearly that they want policymakers to focus on what really matters and not on divisions and distractions. In January, they’ll have the chance to do that.