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Minnesota 2020 Journal: The Prodigal Stadium

May 11, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a public policy lesson for Minnesota’s legislators.

A young man, the younger of two sons, approaches his father, seeking his inheritance. Give me what is mine, the young man demands. Give me what is mine, now. The father complies.

The young man leaves his home, traveling to a different land—let’s say France—and promptly spends his fortune on bacchanalia. He parties away his money, finding himself destitute in a time of famine. Discovering that his party friends were friendly only as long as the wine flowed, the young man takes menial labor. It’s tough going.

The young man works as a swineherd, feeding and caring for hogs. In the Jewish tradition, hogs are unclean so the story takes extra steps to emphasize the young man’s complete and utter fall. There’s hitting rock bottom and then there’s hitting rock bottom and slopping hogs.

The young man’s thoughts turn to his family and his former home life. He realizes that his father treated workers better than the young man’s employer treated the young man. Chastened, the young man resolves to return home. Brimming with shame, the young man arrives at his father’s house. Father, he says, I have wronged you and wronged our family’s tradition. I cannot be your son but please accept me as a servant.

The father would have none of it. He’d spotted his son trudging home and immediately prepared a celebration. You have returned, he tells the young man, and I am overjoyed.

As the feast kicks into gear, the father’s older son unhappily confronts his father. The father’s actions, the older son insists, are unjust. I did not leave you, as my brother did. I worked hard and obeyed you. Now, you’re roasting a calf in his honor. That’s not fair. I’ve been loyal and honest. My brother turned his back on us. Now, you reward him.

Yes, the father replies. You are honest and loyal. All that I have is yours. But, don’t miss the point. Your brother was lost and now is returned. We are together again. That’s reason enough to celebrate.

Like all good parables, the lesson is equally obvious and obscure which is why it’s applicable to Minnesota’s public policy debate. The Prodigal Son is a parable of loss and redemption. Minnesota’s policy debate may have been derailed by partisan division but it can be redeemed.

Bipartisan public policy making is possible. I know this because I watched the Vikings stadium deal pass a widely divided State Legislature. If we focus on what’s really important—schools, jobs, healthcare and roads—policymakers can find bipartisan agreement.

Regardless of your position on the professional football stadium’s public investment component, recognize that its passage is a bipartisan achievement. Supporters diligently kept the deal on track despite considerable efforts to derail it. In fact, I believe that stadium opposition failed in substantial part because it lacked a bipartisan basis. Despite sharing a common goal, legislative opponents couldn’t find common ground.

A football stadium is not a prodigal child. The Metrodome—the last major multiuse sports facility built in this country and the functional equivalent of a 1982 Chevy Caprice—didn’t march off in an arrogant huff and blow its cash. Minnesota received 30 good years of service. But, like all infrastructure, nothing lasts forever. Communities require regular investment and recapitalization.

When policymakers set aside partisan quarrels, focusing on shared values and goals, fights tend to melt away. In the parable, the young man recognizes the error of his ways thus beginning his redemptive journey. He grows to understand his loss of connection to family and community. He fails to appreciate his family’s and community’s loss of him. That’s why he’s stunned and his brother is angered when his father enthusiastically celebrates the young man’s return. Redemption is a path not a one-way street.

We’ve stumbled. There’s no question in my mind. Minnesota has strayed from the community-strengthening elements that made our state great. Conservative public policy hasn’t worked. It’s undermining Minnesota’s collective strengths. But, we can come back. We can be redeemed.

The stadium deal is proof that bipartisan policymaking remains an option. It can become the normal way of doing things provided that policy leaders focus on community. When that happens, Minnesota moves forward. Slay the fattened calf; the prodigal son has returned.

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  • Tom Welna says:

    May 15, 2012 at 9:05 am

    “Regardless of your position on the professional football stadium’s public investment component, recognize that its passage is a bipartisan achievement.”

    Really? How about recognizing it for the ‘bipartisan failure’ that it is? When the super-rich collude with labor, derailing the will of the citizenry, that is no achievement.  A majority of Minnesotans don’t support public subsidies to “pro” sport team owners.  The opportunity costs of directing a billion dollars of public and private capital to stadium instead of investing in our future (education, health care, clean energy, sustainable transportation…) means we not only wasted a billion, we also kicked our real problems way down the road.

    If that is the best we can do, then bipartisanship sucks.

  • Susan Legender Clarke says:

    May 15, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Bipartisanship in the name of big business and big money! Are we celebrating that when it comes to protecting the wealthy and the privileged, Dems and Repubs can agree, but when we are talking about schooling, health care, roads, bridges, fire and police funding etc., there is not agreement or acceptance?
    I am totally dismayed and disgusted by this “bipartisanship”!

  • Dan says:

    May 15, 2012 at 10:19 am

    The stadium bill, a bi-partisan achievement?  Baloney.  What it comes down to is neither the democrats, republicans nor the Governor wanted to be blamed for the Vikings leaving MN.  The Vikings and the NFL played our legislature like a fiddle and rammed yet another unwanted stadium down our throats while Minnesotans are left, stuck with the bill so that our elected representatives can save face.  We’ll be thinking about how our tax dollars are being spent for sports arenas for the wealthy while our infrastructure continues to crumble, our schools continue to decline, citizens are still without healthcare and the less fortunate are going hungry.