Without a keen eye on data and a clear vision for the future, how can Minnesota produce a sound budget?
Meet Debra Thompson, forensic accountant and true Minnesotan. (I met her last week at that renowned crossroads of civic-minded intelligentsia, the State Capitol cafeteria.)
I couldn't resist: "Do forensic accountants do the books of dead companies?" I asked.
"Sometimes, yes," she said, with a laugh that made me (almost) forget all the CPA jokes I'd heard.
The enterprise that was under her forensic lens last week was one in which every Minnesotan is a shareholder -- state government.
The idea she and her Minnesota Society of Certified Public Accountants colleague Michael Casserly came to the Capitol to sell is one that bears on the lawmaking year's most ceremonious event, Gov. Mark Dayton's State of the State address, set for noon Wednesday.
I voiced the hope that Thompson didn't count state government among her dead-company clients. I noted that her smile didn't reappear.
Instead, the consulting director at RSM McGladrey Inc. in Minneapolis told me a story that proved to me her Minnesota chops:
She came to the Capitol in April 2009 to testify against a proposed tax on accounting services. DFL Sen. Tom Bakk, then taxes committee chair, challenged her: If not this tax increase, then what?
Thompson didn't shrug off that question as somebody else's problem. She took it to heart.
She went back to her professional organization, put together a committee, did six months of research and came back to the Capitol with an informed critique and a serious proposal.
The critique: State government lacks an agreed-upon vision-- a clear, broadly held, bipartisan answer to the question, "What do we want Minnesota to be?"
Lacking that, it follows that Minnesota also lacks a coherent strategic plan and agreed-upon metric measures of progress, the CPAs said. As the saying goes, if a body doesn't know where it's going, any road will get it there.
Directionless drift in state government might be tolerable when times are flush. It can be disastrous in lean times, Thompson warned.
Without a vision and a plan, decisionmakers are at risk of making choices that waste money or limit the state's future possibilities.
For example: Does Minnesota want to be the Brainpower State, as the late Gov. Rudy Perpich used to say? Then improving educational outcomes is crucial work right now.
Cutting higher-education spending in a way that drives down quality or enrollment must be avoided.
Failing to proceed with the new physics and nanotechnology lab needed at the University of Minnesota would be short-sighted. Keeping talent-attracting amenities -- including an NFL team -- makes strategic sense.
Or does Minnesota want to be a magnet for employers of low-skilled, low-wage workers? Then education isn't as important. Low business taxes are -- especially the property taxes paid by owners of large factories and warehouses.
To the extent state government has had a sense of direction, it has emanated from the governor's office -- often in formal speeches like the one on the docket this week. For example, the "Brainpower State" label came from Perpich's 1987 State of the State message.
Knowing that puts an onus on Dayton to deliver a broad, future-oriented, goal-studded message. As Thompson said, "We need our leaders to provide their vision."
But what Thompson and her CPA committee advise goes beyond one politician or one party to something more fundamental and enduring.
They propose a bipartisan summit meeting later this year, after the session's dust-up has settled, to take a stab at a drafting a state vision statement.
Then they recommend the creation of a politically independent agency in charge of strategic planning. It would assemble data already being collected, find best-practices examples in other states, and spin them forward as Minnesota-specific guidance to lawmakers.
They're talking about something akin to what Minnesota once had -- the State Planning Agency.
Despite occasional political co-opting and roller-coaster resources over four decades, the State Planning Agency attempted to look at what was ahead demographically and economically.
When it was at its best, the agency was a source of policy guidance aimed at keeping Minnesota healthy and prosperous as predictable change arrived.
The agency died as state budgets were squeezed during the Pawlenty administration. Government thinkers as notable as state demographer Tom Gillaspy, former administration commissioner Dana Badgerow and former Gov. Arne Carlson have called for its return.
As Badgerow told me several months ago, "No agency in state government currently has any responsibility for cross-agency, global strategic planning. We have a lot of data being collected. But the 'so what?' analysis is missing."
It shouldn't be lost on austerity-minded Minnesotans that the proposal to revive a defunct state agency is coming from the green-eyeshade pros that help businesses keep costs down. CPAs know that for an enterprise to thrive, being lean isn't enough.
It also has to be strategic and smart.
"We are financial advisers," Thompson said. "We advise clients to be strategic all the time. Why not advise the state we love the same way?" Spoken like a true Minnesotan.