Just deal with the purple elephant in the room

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 3, 2012 - 4:19 PM

The sooner we get the Vikings stadium issue out of the way, the sooner we can focus on our biggest challenge: Human capital.

Count this Twins fan among those rooting for a new Vikings stadium to be authorized this year. Not next year or some other someday. This year.

Why the haste, when the team hasn't (yet) summoned any moving vans?

Because as long as the state's most popular sports team's facility needs go unmet, discussion of those needs won't end. And all that talk depletes a valuable and finite resource -- the attention of the voters and their elected representatives.

It's a distraction, just when demographic and economic change should rivet public focus on the Big Challenge that Minnesota is confronting.

That challenge has precious little to do with sports facilities (or same-sex marriage, or voter ID, or "shoot first," or abortion, or a host of other politically juicy diversions that have been foisted onto Minnesota's public agenda this year).

Rather, it's about finding the best possible answer to this question: How can Minnesota preserve and enhance the asset on which its prosperity depends -- its well-educated, highly productive workforce?

Maintaining Minnesota's education edge ought to command top billing at the Capitol from now until the last baby boomer "checks out" of her assisted-living facility. To thrive, an aging society needs to maximize the skills, productivity and incomes of its working-age members.

Unfortunately, government by baby boomers and their younger siblings is government with a short and scattered attention span. (Blame too much TV. Our parents did.)

Before Thursday, the stadium issue had been slipping away from the Capitol limelight, allowing an education issue -- whether performance can join seniority as a consideration when schools lay off teachers -- to get some visibility.

Then, inevitably, the purple tide roared back. Gov. Mark Dayton, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, and assorted legislative luminaries announced that they had struck a deal with the occupants of the Vikings' boardroom for a new stadium.

Their accord does not make a new stadium a done deal. It merely puts the issue on the Legislature's agenda. Getting it passed, and getting the Minneapolis City Council to go along, are still uphill propositions.

Yet the crowd and cameras that packed the Governor's Reception Room on Thursday morning had the density one would expect for a momentous announcement.

A conscience-pricking contrast: The crowd was as thick, but cameras and scribblers were not, immediately afterward in the Rotunda, where several hundred disabled Minnesotans and their caregivers assembled to plead for adequate services.

Building Minnesota's human capital, not building sports megaplexes, ought to be dominate public discussion. It won't, as long as the Vikings stadium issue is unresolved.

Legislators who think they'd do well to postpone action on this issue until after the November election should think harder about the town-hall meetings and debates they'll attend this fall. Those meetings are democracy's prime-time events.

If the stadium issue remains unsettled, it will be among the first and longest points of discussion at every meeting. Precious time for more important matters will be squeezed.

It could be about to be squeezed at the Capitol. A lot of legislators are talking hopefully about adjournment by Easter. That's just five weeks from today.

The good word is that the legislators who carry the state's education portfolios have not been sidelined by the stadium issue. They did more good last year than most Minnesotans could see through the smoke and flame of a budget battle that turned into a 20-day partial government shutdown.

Last year's moves to bring the latest research to bear on the teaching of reading are highly promising. So is a start on a new teacher evaluation system. When it's in place in a few years, it's expected to provide a basis for teachers to be rewarded and/or weeded out based on effectiveness in the classroom.

The bill that would require employing the new evaluation system when determining who will get pink slips when schools downsize might be considered premature, given that the system is still in the works.

But it also might be considered a welcome affirmation from the people's representatives about this state's intention to meet its Big Challenge. The tenure-bending bill says that Minnesota is serious about preserving instructional quality, even and especially when money is tight.

Last week, that bill went to conference committee. That's where Republican-backed bills go when GOP legislators are serious about getting some version of them signed into law by a DFL governor.

Let the TV cameras chase the stadium bill around the Capitol hearing rooms. I intend to keep my eye on that conference committee.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

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