An important and troubling pattern was revealed in recent commentaries by Tom Horner (“Tax-spend debate needs a new focus,” April 28) and Ron Way (“A run-down river runs through it,” May 5). Horner asks Minnesotans to convert our regular political debate over taxes and spending to one focused on public sector priorities and outcomes, budgeting accordingly. Way reminds us that cleaning up our state’s water resources has been a goal for at least 30 years.
Horner uses the predictable arguments of Democrats and Republicans at the State Capitol to make his point, while Way focuses on the long-lamented plight of the Minnesota River. We’ve heard it all before. The issues persist. No solutions in sight. The broken records spin.
I moved to Minnesota almost 50 years ago, attracted by the University of Minnesota’s practical approach to training public-affairs professionals; by my father’s lifelong admiration of Hubert Humphrey; and, yes, by the weather. Early on, I more or less stumbled on the Citizens League, where I worked for about four years. There, my first impressions met reality in the best possible way.
I came to understand why Gov. Wendell Anderson’s picture on the cover of Time magazine in 1973, and the accolades that came with it (that is, the governor who leads in the state that works) were deserved. But I also learned that Minnesota’s public-affairs “miracles” frequently started via a network of general-purpose organizations whose sole mission was to analyze and recommend solutions to issues facing our state.
Joining the Citizens League in this effort were groups like the Upper Midwest Council, InterStudy, Public Service Options, the State Planning Agency and, more recently, the Civic Caucus and the Itasca Group. Their ideas fueled policy debate, and became a basis for public- and private-sector solutions.
Not every idea worked, but we made progress on prepaid health care, adult higher education, ride-sharing transit, postsecondary options for high school students, charter schools, and financing for K-12 education and local government, among other effective innovations.
Today, most of Minnesota’s third-party, general-purpose ideas infrastructure is either gone or struggling. Those groups remaining don’t produce third-party analysis and recommendations as in the past. Why? There is little time and money for the work that goes into producing creative or hybrid solutions.
The resulting space has been filled by ideology-driven organizations — e.g., the Center of the American Experiment, Growth & Justice. Organizations like these now dominate Minnesota public affairs.
That’s fine, but there’s still plenty of room for third-party analysis and recommendations. As Horner and Way illustrate, the same problems persist.
What to do? We can’t turn back the clock. But without ideas from credible, third-party sources, we will suffocate. The Legislature and other policymaking bodies have shown time and again that their skill is sorting out ideas and adopting solutions, not in developing ideas. The ideology-driven organizations are more than willing to continue delivering their analysis. That’s their mission, but that feeds polarization, especially if there are no well-thought-out, third-party proposals on the table.
Look at recent failures of our governors and legislators to conclude their work without special sessions or major vetoes. Absent third-party proposals, policymakers are left with ideology, and that does not lend itself to progress on solving problems, not even incremental progress.
We need to boost our third-party idea factories. That’s a job for our state’s foundations. After all, making Minnesota a better place to live is part of, if not entirely, their purpose. Individually or collectively, they should fund general-purpose, third-party state policy analysis and recommendations.
The idea groups should scan our state regularly to identify persistent and emerging issues. Use the latest technology and traditional media to share what they’re hearing with all Minnesotans. And, most important, put citizen generalists to work analyzing the issues and recommending actionable solutions.
Their ideas will crowd out those driven entirely by ideology. They’ll give policymakers the means to redefine debates so they can adopt solutions instead of flooding us with the same old rhetoric and same old excuses.
I know foundations don’t like to be on the hook for permanently funding anything. But in this case, success will go a long way toward completing their mission. Better yet, Minnesota will have a tried-and-true means of identifying and solving community problems, now and in the future.
Bill Blazar, of Minneapolis is the retired senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.