Laura Kalambokidis has some big shoes to fill, but she’s not coming in cold.
The incoming state economist’s specialty is public finance and economics, and she’s worked with her predecessor, Tom Stinson, for 13 years at the University of Minnesota. The last two times Stinson put out the annual revenue forecast, which is the main responsibility of the job, Kalambokidis observed the process.
Meanwhile, the two colleagues have offices in the same building at the U, so he’ll be nearby if she has questions.
Kalambokidis, 49, will take over the job in July. She sat for an interview last week.
Q: What appeals to you about this position?
A: I’ve watched Tom do this job for a long time and I admire the impact he’s had, in terms of providing good analysis for public policy decisionmakers in Minnesota, and I appreciate the opportunity to follow in his footsteps. I have worked with or around government my whole career and I appreciate public service, and I’m eager to work in it again.
Q: When Stinson announced he was stepping down last week, you said you were excited about the range of questions you’ll get to address as state economist. What are those?
A: What’s happening in various industries: What’s happening in mining? What’s happening in agriculture? What’s happening in medical devices? That’s a set of questions that are more detailed than forecasting for the whole country. There are also all manner of tax questions. There have been a number of changes made by the Legislature and the governor recently. So how are those changes going to affect the revenue forecast coming in, and when? I’m surprised at the range of questions that Tom gets asked. I wasn’t surprised that people expected him to know everything about the forecast, but I didn’t expect that people would expect him to know everything about everything.
Q: What’s the first thing on your agenda?
A: The annual forecast is the thing that’s first on my agenda, to understand that process and do that well. Once I’ve been through that process, I understand the state economy much better.
Q: What’s your assessment of the state economy?
A: We’re expecting sustained, modest growth this year. We’re doing better with regard to unemployment than the nation as a whole and a little better than we usually do relative to the nation as a whole, and that’s positive. There are still external threats, mostly coming from the federal government and the fiscal drag that we may feel.
Q: You still think the sequester could have an impact?
A: I think [it] could, and that’s what the macro forecasters are saying. We’re probably in the brunt of it now, but it could extend into the summer.
Q: It doesn’t always seem like good economic news matches with how people feel about the economy. Why do you think that is?
A: I’m especially interested in that disconnect, because it can inform how we look at the numbers. Any time you look at averages of numbers, that can mask the differences within the group. Sometimes, it might be something that we missed, or maybe the people you’re talking to are on the cutting edge of a trend, so it’s worth listening to them. I find that an interesting aspect of doing economic policy. Is what I’m seeing based on the data and the models and the training consistent with what people are seeing out there? And if not, why not?
Q: Minnesota’s economy has historically performed better than the nation and most neighboring states, and that remains the case today. Why is that?
A: I’m going to sound like I’ve been working with Tom for a while. He was right that a productive workforce is an important part of Minnesota’s performance, not just now, but for the trend we’ve been on for a while of being above the mean for employment. High workforce participation, women in the workforce, a lot of people employed, high productivity — and where would those things come from? It’s hard not to come down on education as being the reason those things are true.
Q: What about the state’s future?
A: Past success is not a guarantee of future success. If workforce is one of the key reasons that we have been successful, then we want to make sure we’re keeping an eye on that from a policy point of view. Who’s coming into the workforce, who’s leaving, who’s immigrating in, who’s aging in, and does it look like the workforce that we need for the next 20 years?
Q: So what is an extension economist?
A: Extension economists are educators, but we’re not just in the classroom. There’s some kind of public engagement. If you’ve ever heard of agricultural extension agents, they’re the people who go out and work with farmers. Home economics used to be a whole bunch of home economists who worked in extensions, who worked with homemakers. When I first started here, 13 years ago, I got a call from a lady in outstate Minnesota who said she needed to know how to get a wine stain out of a linen tablecloth. I knew I was going to be an applied economist, but not really that applied I didn’t even know where to send her.
Q: You think you’ll be the state economist for 26 years, as long as Stinson?
A: I’m not thinking that far ahead right now. But it would be an honor to make the kind of contribution that he’s made.