A statewide survey conducted in January asked Minnesotans what they expected of the 2013 legislative session. Nearly half of the respondents (48 percent) predicted that the newly elected Democratic majority either would overreach — spend more than the state can afford — or not do much of anything. Only 35 percent thought the DFL “would pass legislation to help people like me.”
The Legislature will adjourn Monday, and it appears the survey respondents were prescient. The 2013 session deserves credit for a few smart investments in the future, including more funding for early childhood and higher education. Overall, though, the DFL is increasing taxes too much and in ways that undermine economic growth. DFL majorities failed to make government more efficient, because too often their public-policy decisions were driven by the interest groups that dominate their party.
Given these underwhelming legislative outcomes, Republicans can hope that voters will overlook the failure of GOP legislators to offer constructive alternatives to the DFL agenda. The Republican strategy may be nothing more than running out the clock, hoping voters will punish Democrats in the 2014 legislative elections, just as Minnesotans rejected Republican leadership of the state in 2012.
Minnesotans have a right to expect more. Both Republicans and Democrats would do well to remember that before the next election, there will be a 2014 legislative session. Minnesotans would be better served if leaders of the major parties start now to tee up a 2014 session focused on innovation and reform. This agenda should start with three areas critical to the state’s long-term success:
• An aging population: The graying of Minnesota will escalate the cost of public services, especially health care. But older Minnesotans also are a great potential resource. According to Minnesota Compass, they are engaged in their communities at rates far above the rest of the nation. It’s an enormous opportunity. Next year is a time to think differently about aging and to craft innovative policies to tap this resource. For example, think of the value to the entire state if more of the 700,000 Minnesotans older than 65 would become mentors to those among the 1.3 million Minnesotans 18 or younger who need a reliable adult influence in their lives. Public policies on aging shouldn’t be just about public spending.
• Lifelong learning: Typically, education debates occur in silos — preschool, K-12 and higher education. A prosperous Minnesota future depends on education starting earlier and never ending. How education is delivered, funded and accessed demands new thinking, not just more money. Certainly, we must attract and retain the best teachers. In addition, technology — from online college courses to self-directed learning for high schoolers — needs to be better integrated into classroom instruction. New policies are needed to close the achievement gap early in life and the learning gap later in life that keeps too many workers unemployed or underemployed. Smarter policies to promote early childhood learning are needed to address the former. The latter also needs creative thinking. For example, allow high school students greater access to postsecondary technical training, similar to the option available to those bound for college.
• Closing the gaps: Disparate education outcomes are only part of Minnesota’s “gap challenges.” A shrinking middle class and the challenges of small town and rural areas require new, innovative approaches. Simplistic solutions — more spending on programs that aren’t producing needed outcomes — won’t close these gaps. The Legislature ought to set aside the short-term agendas of special-interest constituencies and develop the long-term policies that promote prosperity for all Minnesotans.
A commitment to innovation in the 2014 legislative session would require the DFL to define “tax the rich” as something more than just a path to more spending. Likewise, it would require Republicans to stop offering “no new taxes” as the answer to every policy challenge. To be credible, Republicans need to show how Minnesota — through reform — truly can do more with less.
Certainly, some of these challenges will take more funding and different thinking about taxes, and those decisions are made in the odd-numbered budget years. But too often, the Legislature confuses policy and spending. Its opportunity in 2014 is to first define the strategies for success in these critical areas, then return in future years to determine the funding.
The work of crafting a two-year budget will end when the clock strikes midnight tomorrow. But legislators will be back in January 2014, and we should remind them that there is more work to be done.
Tom Horner is a public-affairs consultant and was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and is a former Democratic member of Congress. Both are former Independence Party candidates for governor.