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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Legislative Session Failings and the Lessons of Shiloh

May 21, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
Let's stop pretending. The Minnesota legislative session yielded a poor progressive outcome. It was bad for kids, schools, the elderly, the infirm, families, small business owners, workers, roads, hospitals, the environment and Minnesota's future. It was good for conservatives and Governor Pawlenty.
What happened and what's it going to take to move Minnesota forward?

Tactically, conservative lawmakers and public policy advocates simply outmaneuvered their progressive counterparts. State House Republicans may be the minority caucus but they have a critical three-vote cushion against gubernatorial veto override votes. Not only did they not splinter, they appeared to never even waiver in their caucus unity. This, more than anything, stymied progressive policy initiatives.

Governor Pawlenty continued his successful conservative policy messaging frame, casting aside every attempt to balance state budget deficits through revenue increases as out-of-control government refusing self-discipline. The Pawlenty "no new taxes, ever, under any circumstance" insistence may be great presidential nomination politics but its bad public policy for Minnesota. Progressive legislators never successfully made the case for an alternative vision, supplanting Pawlenty's conservative orthodoxy with a compelling progressive plan.

Pawlenty happily and regularly utilized every public communications route available to him. State House and State Senate leaders seemed disinterested in any communications strategy that required more effort than walking between each other's offices. Pawlenty cast himself as the responsible defender of Minnesota's best interests; Minnesota majority caucus legislators let him, appearing instead as defenders of traditional constituency desires. Whenever Pawlenty rhetorically chastised Democrats, pithily demanding that they "put down their spoons and step away from the table," legislative Democrats angrily shook their spoons in response.

I am particularly disappointed with the bipartisan agreement that balances Minnesota's state budget deficit on the backs of school children. Robbing school districts by unilaterally withholding school funding payments, forcing schools to cut programs, increase class sizes, increase local property taxes and assume unanticipated short-term operating loan costs, just to avoid hard state public policy decisions, is unconscionable.

Our side believes in education. We've fought long and hard to bring world-class education to every Minnesota child. Why, then, are our elected officials helping Governor Pawlenty and his conservative public policy allies defund public education? Buck passing, meaning that state legislators have embraced state budget funding mechanisms that increase future debt in return for short-term gains, has become the bipartisan cooperation standard. It's unworthy of Minnesota's civic traditions or its future.

State Representative Mindy Greiling, chair of the State House K12 Finance Division, reflecting on nearly $3 billion in collective school transfer payment delays, declared, "If anyone dares to go out and campaign that we held our schools harmless I will show up in their nightmares." That's a great start but haunting nightmares isn't enough. State elected officials have to be held publicly accountable.

Which leads me to my last point: what do we do?

First, we expand our research effort. We follow the data, examining the impacts and consequences of conservative public policy over the past 10 years. We must also fearlessly challenge our own suppositions, seeking a stronger, better policy outcome that creates a stronger, better Minnesota.

Assembling and studying performance data is, however, resisted by conservatives because it leads to awkward, uncomfortable truths.

Minnesota is slipping, retreating to some middling, perpetually underperforming state ranking. In our hearts, we may know that we're no longer leading or even achieving an adequate result but that's not the same as assembling hard, irrefutable data. Conservatives will always dismiss our findings but we don't have to make their job easier. Accountability requires defensible data points. Let's embrace rather than fear them.

Second, we expand our persuasive reach. Good research makes a compelling argument stronger but good research without a strong argument is just a binder full of numbers gathering dust. We can't wait for someone to make our case for us; we must, all of us, do it ourselves. The Obama Administration's first 16 months in office provides a powerful, instructive lesson: electing any single leader will not result in automatic policy change. The progressive fight for Minnesota's future is engaged daily. If we wait, we lose.

One hundred forty-eight years ago, after the first day's battle at Shiloh, during the American Civil War, Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman encountered his commander, Major General U.S. Grant. Grant was weary, despondent over the day's losses and unsuccessful engagement, taking rain shelter under a tree.

"Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?" Sherman asked.

Grant puffed on his cigar, then replied,"Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow though."

The next day, April 7, 1862, regrouped Union forces surged, forcing Confederate troops into retreat. Despite attempts to rally, CSA soldiers were divided and driven back, ending, months later, with complete Union control of the Mississippi River and the increasing isolation of secessionist states.

Progressive vision and electoral victories have not produced progressive policy for Minnesota. We're right to feel frustrated but our truest measure comes from the next actions that we take. We have much work ahead, regardless of this November's election outcome. We must shoulder the difficult work of listening to Minnesotan's concerns and hopes, persuading them to support our progressive public policy vision. It's not going to be easy but it must be done. Absent change, Minnesota won't move forward; it will continue falling back.

Lick 'em tomorrow, though.

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