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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Advance or Retreat?

June 01, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

This year, twenty-one percent of Minnesota’s state legislators aren’t seeking re-election. That’s a fifth of the combined chambers’ total. Partisan gridlock claims aside, this turnover isn’t unusual or even unpredictable but it threatens to distract us from the election’s key issue: Minnesota’s public policy direction.

In other words, it’s about the outcome, not the process.

This is the first election following the census-driven legislative redistricting. That process always pits at least a handful of incumbents against each other, leaving some to step down rather than fight it out with a colleague. This cycle is no exception. Then, there are always a handful of long-serving members who decide that it’s just plain time to retire. Also, most years produce a few one- or two-term members who decide that their public service call doesn’t include more legislative work.

Lastly, most legislators possess better than average political noses. They can smell popular discontent and gauge its impact in their legislative district. Some will decide to stand down rather than risk defeat. By the same token, others will jump into another election.

Suddenly, what appeared to be a big deal -forty-two members aren’t seeking re-election- isn’t as big of a deal as it initially seemed. Rather than a situational deluge, legislative membership change is actually normal. More importantly, legislator turnover isn’t the key issue; it’s Minnesota’s public policy direction.

From a policymaking perspective, electoral swing tends to nudge the great river barge of policy direction rather than dramatically altering its course. While Minnesota’s state legislature continues edging towards increasingly conservative public policy initiatives, a 2010 conservative electoral sweep would’ve created Minnesota’s Wisconsin moment. Given rare concurrent control of the governor’s office and both state legislative bodies, Wisconsin’s conservative policymaking majority immediately attempted a radical state policy course shift.

Wisconsin has been torn apart, fighting about it ever since. Minnesota doesn’t need this experience.

A few conservative voices demand a genuinely radical restructuring of Minnesota’s public policy direction. Many, many more conservative legislators want to direct Minnesota’s accumulated public investment’s benefits to fewer, wealthier Minnesotans at the expense of middle and lower income earning Minnesotans. All are hoping to distract you from focusing on Minnesota’s real challenges.

Minnesota, like much of the nation, is engaged in a profound public policy debate over our state’s future. We’re experiencing that debate’s logical consequences. Sharpened by economic transition, financial decline and five years of fiscal disruption that has shaken us to our roots, Minnesotans are feeling justly disquieted. What worked for our parents and grandparents won’t work for us, in exactly the way that it worked for them.

Conservative policy advocates regularly exploit this economic transition’s anxiety. My observation regarding what worked then won’t work now is meant to be interpreted narrowly. Minnesotans can’t expect to graduate from high school and get a secure, decent paying, life-long job with a single employer. We need a great K-12 education, post-high school advanced education and then regular access to life-long education in order to be competitive. That education is best and most effectively realized as a community undertaking.

Simultaneously, Minnesota’s physical infrastructure is essential to our state economic competitive standing. Keeping up our roads, bridges and public buildings is a smart investment that grows Minnesota’s economy. Affordable healthcare is equal parts a family stability and workforce productivity issue. We prosper because we’re healthy.

Conservative policy leaders don’t want you to think of Minnesota’s challenges in these terms. They prefer that you think of state economic activity as a well-defined, never-changing pie. Somehow, government is trying to steal your slice of the pie. That’s their story, anyway. It’s also wrong.

Minnesota’s economy is changing. We still manufacture stuff but we do it with fewer and better trained workers. Even Minnesota’s extractive industries, our state’s backbone, are changing. We sent—and still send—much of our timber, ore and agricultural commodities straight to market as raw materials with one great exception: wheat milling. Building on those roots, Minnesota became and remains a food processing leader. It’s still a promising path for future growth, prosperity and stability as value-added processing replaces that older-style manufacturing.

Getting there requires thinking differently about our future. This year, Minnesota faces an elemental policy decision. Do we invest in ourselves and our future or do we retreat?

For the past ten years, we’ve retreated. We’ve allowed conservative advocates to convince us that family stability and prosperity can be achieved without public infrastructure. They can’t. But, if we focus on what really matters—education, healthcare, transportation and economic development—then Minnesota moves forward.

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