Lori Sturdevant: Legislators lend an ear and hear about 'the Minnesota way'

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 22, 2009 - 4:52 AM

No need to be cynical: The people are turning out in force to talk about their hopes for a way of life they don't want to lose.

ROCHESTER - The Legislature's state budget listening sessions that began Thursday had been dismissed as "just a sham" and "lack of leadership sessions" by conservative critics.

If folks in Rochester heard that spin, they evidently didn't buy it. Two hundred chairs were set up for the expected crowd at Rochester Community and Technical College's Heintz Center Thursday night. Four hundred worried-looking people showed up. More than 100 signed up to speak.

So much for the Minnesota Majority's claim that these are "carefully orchestrated events."

Some came loaded for bear, representing councils or causes. But others said they came alone, representing only themselves, because they care. Fifteen legislators, led by House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, muzzled themselves for a full 160 minutes -- and gave every indication of doing the listening they promised.

It was enough to suppress the Inner Cynic that can creep into a Capitol watcher's psyche.

The DFL legislative leaders who hatched plans for two dozen budget hearings around the state may well have harbored a little hope that they would turn into Tim Pawlenty bash-a-thons, or provide the political ground cover for a tax increase.

But if the Rochester hearing is typical, these hearings will be better remembered as demonstrations of Minnesotans' faith in democracy, even and maybe especially when times are hard. Citizen apathy isn't in vogue this year, if ever it was. The Legislature appears to be hosting a series of group therapy sessions for people who love this state and worry that "the Minnesota way" is being lost.

That was the phrase the host college's president, Don Supalla, used as he begged that his students be spared from an increase in tuition that's already the second-highest in the nation among two-year public colleges. Students are overloaded with off-campus work and debt.

"This is not the Minnesota way," said Supalla, who's been associated with the college since 1972 and at its helm since 1997. "Minnesotans have always viewed higher education as a public good and an investment in the future."

Supalla made it clear that he's not afraid to trim costs. His college has been doing as much for years, and can do more. "There will be some good things that will come out of this. There always are. You need to every once in a while step back and say 'how can we do things differently?'" The sharing that MnSCU and the University of Minnesota do at University Center Rochester might be a model for others, he opined.

Supalla's nuanced message -- "We can be more efficient, but please spare the people we serve" -- was conveyed in various ways by the city, county, school and nonprofit officials who took their turns at the microphone.

Even a business agent for the public employees' union AFSCME, Jim Dahling, spoke of "every Minnesotan being willing to do his share." He didn't plead for public workers' jobs or benefits, but for sustaining the work that they do.

Taxes weren't a big theme. There were a few heartfelt pleas for higher taxes, particularly to help disabled people striving for self-sufficiency, and a similarly fervent call for no new taxes from a heating-and-plumbing contractor who has already laid off 25 employees.

Former state Rep. Dave Bishop, who came to the hearing despite surgery earlier in the week, renewed a motion he made while in office. He thinks a state that includes the Mall of America is foolish to be one of the few states in the country that does not tax clothing purchases. (Bishop served 20 years as a Republican. He got an appreciative reaction from the audience when he allowed that if he were to make a comeback, "it might now" be as a DFLer.)

But more prominent than partisanship or tax talk was the sense that huge change is sweeping through this state. To the extent possible, Minnesotans want their elected officials to grab hold and steer that change in a direction that puts them in a state they can still love.

They were glad to be asked to help solve the state's budget problem, speaker after speaker said. They liked the assurance that their input matters. By the end of an emotional evening, not even Republican legislators were willing to suggest otherwise.

But the speakers made clear that they expect the Legislature to do more than listen.

"You have to be more than managers. You have to be leaders," advised Tim Terrill of the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Echoed retired United Methodist minister the Rev. Bruce Buller: "For those of us who are looking for answers, you're tardy. Thank you for your work, and be at it, soon."

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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