Six questions for the candidates: Tom Horner, Independence Party

  • Updated: October 16, 2010 - 5:40 PM



Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner addressed Vikings fans, promoting his plan to help build a new Vikings stadium.

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Today, with Tom Horner's responses to questions posed by the Star Tribune Editorial Board, Opinion Exchange concludes its series "It's About the Future," examining challenges to Minnesota's long-term well-being and the leading gubernatorial candidates' plans for meeting those challenges. (Answers from DFLer Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer appeared on previous Sundays.) As always, we invite readers to join the discussion by sending submissions to

1. Through much of the last decade, for the first time in memory, job and income growth in Minnesota lagged national averages. Yet in the Great Recession of the past two years, the state has seen employment recover more vigorously than in the nation as a whole. How do you interpret this pattern, and what economic policy responses do you believe it requires?

Unemployment data suggest that Minnesota's diverse economy has helped it weather the Great Recession better than most states. While Minnesota's unemployment rate is lower than the national average, the data are skewed by California, Nevada and a few industrial states that truly are reeling. The fact is, since 2000, Minnesota's population has increased by about 7 percent, while the number of jobs has grown only by about 2 percent. Policies laser-focused on four economic strategies are needed for the future:

• Commit to an education system based on access to lifelong learning, from early childhood through adult skills development.

• Basic and applied research at the state's two- and four-year schools must be a priority. We don't know if Minnesota's next homegrown Fortune 500 company will come from the breakthrough work in renewable energy being done at the two-year Central Lakes College Ag Center in Staples or from the Biomedical Diversity Center on the University of Minnesota campus. We do know that a future without innovation will be a bleak future for Minnesota.

• Minnesota has a tax system largely created in the 1960s and '70s for an economy that no longer works. In a global economy, Minnesota must make the transition to a tax system that promotes investment by individuals and businesses, taxes consumption and rewards economic development.

• Streamline permitting processes and regulatory oversight. Minnesotans should expect government to be rigorous in protecting citizens' health and our environment, and businesses should expect that with today's expertise and technology, government can meet these obligations in a reasonable time period.

2. Despite its comparatively healthy recovery, Minnesota is suffering a job shortage. Yet experts tell us that a shortage of skilled labor will soon emerge as a larger and more persistent drag on this state. What must the next governor do to avert the long-term worker shortage, even as he addresses the near-term unemployment problem?

Tax reform, policies to reduce the cost of employment (including health care costs) and a state budget focused on priorities will create a stronger economic climate. While some short-term efforts -- including a bonding bill for shovel-ready projects -- will be needed in 2011, long-term efforts must be strategic:

• First, Minnesota can't afford to have only three-fourths of its ninth-graders graduating from high school in five years.

Having more-successful high school graduates, especially those prepared to move ahead in STEM-related careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), is essential. Turning around schools will require comprehensive reforms that include structural changes. We need site-based leadership, and we need to let teachers teach. The rigid approaches imposed by the "teach-to-the-test" mentality are leaving teachers and students too often unmotivated and disengaged. Teachers and schools who are able to open the door to creativity, comprehension, individual responsibility and critical thinking by students are essential.

• Second, skills training for traditional and nontraditional students is needed. Minnesota's two-year schools will be integral to meeting this need through programs like M-Powered, a collaborative effort of Hennepin Technical College and HIRED, a Twin Cities workforce development organization, to train workers for careers in manufacturing.

• And, third, Minnesota needs to be a leader in assuring that all people are here legally but that the state is open to immigrants who contribute to our economy. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and other organizations have offered immigration reform proposals that are thoughtful and appropriate.

3. The educational achievement gap between white and nonwhite Minnesota students is wide compared with that in other states, and troubling considering the growth in the nonwhite population. What steps must Minnesota take to strengthen achievement among minority pupils, and what is the governor's role in making it happen?

Critical to closing the achievement gap is early childhood learning. It is why I am proposing new money in my budget for next year. This is an investment we need to make, even in a tight budget.

We also need successful schools, with teachers who have the autonomy to both engage their students and hold them accountable, and with well-qualified principals. But we need to go farther and be more creative in how we engage children in need and their families. Fair Oaks Elementary School in the Osseo School District -- a school that serves a large number of families of color and those in poverty -- starts early learning programs for 3-year-olds in its attendance area and works with them through grade three. It also engages parents, giving them practical tools and lessons to help their children be ready for kindergarten and succeed once they are there.

But government won't close the achievement gap on its own. Other approaches are needed, including bold new initiatives in mentoring, connecting the large number of Minnesota children who often are without enough adult guidance in their lives.

And, much of the change has to come from within communities of color and in the attitudes of teachers and others. As the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership recommended in its 2009 report, "All Minnesota schools and teachers should establish a strong culture of high expectations in schools that shifts the pedagogical posture from merely 'stay in school' to one of higher expectations, such as 'go to college.'"

4. What concrete, practical and achievable steps should Minnesota government take to slow the growth of health care costs in the state?

We need to get past the idea that political rhetoric and simple solutions will reduce rising health care costs. Fundamental reforms -- many building on what Minnesota already is doing -- are essential:

• Promote prevention and personal responsibility. We need to encourage better nutrition, less smoking and more physical activity.

• Reform the system to focus on outcomes, not more procedures. Pay for what we know works. One immediate step is for the state to use its purchasing power to redesign health care coverage for state employees and those in public programs. Both the Governor's Health Care Transformation Task Force and the independent "Bottom Line" project estimated that not only could this save taxpayers as much as $3.7 billion, but it also would improve Minnesotans' health.

• Coordinate care for expensive chronic conditions. We need a health system that works with people who have chronic conditions, helping them manage their care and being proactive in changing care or behaviors to avoid expensive hospitalizations while improving the quality of care.

• The cost of public health programs is unsustainable. But we won't reduce health spending simply by shifting costs to employers and consumers through their insurance plans or to hospitals, clinics, doctors and dentists and other providers through reimbursement rates that are less than the cost of actually providing the care. To reform public health programs, Minnesota should take advantage of what is known as the Medicaid "early opt-in," leveraging federal dollars to cover more people.

5. What must Minnesota do now to prepare for the dramatic aging of its population expected in the years and decades ahead -- which could, among other things, increase long-term care costs and cut tax revenues?

The next governor should be a leader in creating a national reform model, changing how older adult services are delivered and how they are funded.

Among my priorities are the following:

• Create more home-based, community and institutional care settings to provide a range of options to meet the needs of older Minnesotans, with a priority on helping people stay in their own homes -- to "age in place" -- for as long as possible.

• Streamline oversight of long-term care, assuring that high standards are being met but eliminating some of the costly overlap in regulatory agencies. With this, however, has to come strong consumer protection for older Minnesotans.

• Create new incentives for individual savings. One option is to adapt the popular college savings program (the so-called 529 plans) for older adult care. These plans give tax incentives for savings but allow flexibility in how the funds are used.

Beyond care reform, though, Minnesota will need to be a leader in other areas:

• Assure lifelong learning opportunities for those Minnesotans who want to stay in the workforce.

• Promote the expansion of access to high-speed broadband, allowing more Minnesotans -- including older adults -- to work from home.

• Continue to provide transportation alternatives to the car. More seniors will need more transit options.

• Reform the tax system. With more Minnesotans no longer earning wages, a consumption-based tax system will be fairer for all.

6. There's been a lot of talk about redesigning and reforming the way government functions, both to save money and improve service. What's the most promising redesign idea on your list, and how will you overcome political or practical obstacles to ensure that it comes to pass?

The most important redesign is education. Long-term, my proposals will save money, not just in school budgets, but in the social and employment costs of those who don't have a good education. Four reforms are needed, some of which have been discussed in other answers:

• First, we need all students entering kindergarten prepared for success. That will require an investment in early learning programs.

• Second, we need to let teachers teach. Replace the rigidity of "teaching-to-the-test" by giving teachers the autonomy and authority to make their students successful. Certainly, teachers need to be held accountable to state standards, but we need to allow teachers to challenge the traditional classroom and learning styles to motivate students and make them successful.

• Third, great schools have great principals. Candidates for principal should be identified and proactively recruited and given rigorous training, including a residency program.

• Fourth, Minnesota parents, students and taxpayers need a new partnership with Education Minnesota (the teachers union) -- or we need to move forward in new ways. School districts need flexibility on teacher seniority and tenure, and we need incentive programs that focus on staff development.

This redesign can be achieved by a governor who is able to bring all parties to the table and find the common ground. Most important, a governor has to have the ability and the commitment to give parents and students a voice in these reforms. Without their active participation, nothing happens.


    Today, with Tom Horner's responses to questions posed by the Star Tribune Editorial Board, Opinion Exchange concludes its series "It's About the Future," examining challenges to Minnesota's long-term well-being and the leading gubernatorial candidates' plans for meeting those challenges. (Answers from DFLer Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer appeared on previous Sundays.) As always, we invite readers to join the discussion by sending submissions to opinion@
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