The moral measure of a government, Hubert Humphrey memorably said, is how it treats those in the dawn the life, those in the twilight of life and those in the shadows of life.

By this vital standard, Minnesota state government has lately seemed, at best, something of a bumbler. In fact, by many kinds of standards, Minnesota’s public sector has too regularly performed inadequately for years. It’s not just services for the uniquely vulnerable that have broken down, but services for the broad public. And it’s not only the work of programs and agencies that has disappointed, but the policymaking leadership of elected officials.

Elsewhere on this page, former state commissioner, Minneapolis school superintendent and gubernatorial candidate Peter Hutchinson warns Minnesotans about a flash flood of political promises headed their way as major primaries and elections approach. He urges voters to tune up their “BS detector” and itemizes key questions to which they should demand real answers.

I want to single out a particular aroma to which those detectors should be calibrated — a pungent variety even more prevalent than usual this year. That would be political grandiosity.

We have in Minnesota this year candidates for state attorney general who mainly seem focused on transforming America’s economy and immigration policy and generally using the office’s legal clout to wage ideological battle on a national scale. Others vow to roll back the administrative regulatory state and defend Minnesotans against “bullies” in their own government. Various candidates, including several running for governor, likewise emphasize their readiness to fight the war on terror while preventing immigrant depradations and sundry assaults on the Constitution. Still other state pols mean to reverse climate change, quickly implement single-payer health care at the state level and basically achieve equity of every kind for every person in every corner of the state.

Inspiring rhetoric, no doubt. But real-world voters might be better advised to listen for candidates whose soaring ambitions include causing Minnesota government to perform its basic functions a bit more competently.

Among the opportunities for improvement is the persistently dysfunctional relationship between Minnesota’s governorship and its Legislature. By frequently electing governments divided along party lines in recent decades, Minnesota voters have perhaps invited gridlock. But skillful and public-spirited politicians can occasionally overcome such difficulties, at least to get essential things done.

The leaders Minnesota has been choosing apparently cannot.

Capitol ineptitude reached a new depth earlier this year with the failure of the Republican Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to work out a state tax bill to adjust to sweeping federal tax changes and avoid leaving a large, unnecessary mess next year for Minnesota taxpayers and businesses, and for the new governor and Legislature who will take office in January. The technical challenge was complex, but what prevented its solution was the kind of bipartisan political opportunism and ideological rigidity that has produced a seemingly endless series of government shutdowns, special session showdowns, constitutional crises in court and minimal achievement on such vital matters as education reform, transportation funding and more.

As for broad public services, the state’s ballyhooed health insurance exchange under Obamacare, MNsure, was a technological pratfall that maddeningly frustrated thousands of Minnesotans over several years. And it only foreshadowed a comparable and ongoing malfunction with the MNLARS computer system for driver and vehicle licensing. Whoever could have seen that coming?

All this pales in significance, of course, compared to the state’s failures to measure up to Humphrey’s test. Minnesotans in the dawn of life have suffered — as Star Tribune reporting revealed — from a lax child-protection system too skittish about intervening in neglectful and abusive homes. Those revelations followed by several years reporting on similarly ineffective state regulation of day care providers, with similarly grim consequences.

In the twilight of life, elderly Minnesotans have been poorly served by a state oversight system whose failures to properly investigate allegations of abuse and neglect — exposed just last fall — drove a state health commissioner from office.

And in the shadows? The sheriff of our largest county has made something of a crusade out of protesting the state’s failure to provide treatment and residential care to mentally ill sufferers who instead increasingly are reinstitutionalized — in jail.

Maybe the most shadowed corner of government dysfunction is the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, through which the state incarcerates one of the nation’s largest per capita populations of offenders indefinitely committed to “treatment” facilities after serving their prison sentences. At the end of years of litigation in federal courts, during which a federal district judge ruled the program unconstitutional, Minnesota won its appeal in 2017, allowing it to carry on with what critics told the U.S. Supreme Court (to no avail) are the state’s “uniquely retrograde” laws.

Congratulations. But a policy can be unworthy (and wasteful) even if it isn’t unconstitutional.

There are many more examples of mediocrity and worse that Minnesota’s 2018 candidates could boldly propose to address. But they won’t bother if the sweet smell of high-flown rhetoric wins the voters over.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.