The political theater has been tragic, but as long as there's a next act, there's hope.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra has the gift of prophesy but the curse of powerlessness. She can see into the future and knows that trouble is coming, but can't prevent catastrophe. She is wise, but her powerlessness makes her tragic.
Perhaps Cassandra is a good metaphor for Minnesota's recent political theater. We can see fiscal catastrophe coming and have the wisdom of good intentions and ideas, but are cursed by a broken political system. We can't afford tragedy.
Our legislative leadership has been right. Demographics (we are aging, and workforce growth is slowing) and escalating health and human services costs create an unsustainable fiscal future.
Medical and human-service-related costs are projected to increase 8.5 percent per year; revenue by 4 percent. This trend is unsustainable, and tax increases aren't sufficient to solve the problem.
We need dramatic program reforms and a conversation about the proper role of government in our new demographic and economic landscape.
Our governor has also been right. Without some type of additional revenue and/or program reform, we have to make drastic reductions in services for students, the poor and seniors, and we need a drastic overhaul in our tax code no matter what.
We spend $11 billion a year through tax loopholes and exemptions, most of which are regressive, and our tax code isn't built for a competitive, entrepreneurial, global economy. Without these reforms, we will eventually undermine the quality of life that makes Minnesota a great place to live in this global marketplace.
Our politics push us toward tragedy.
Tragedy, because even short-term solutions shut us down. And they only get us to the next biennium, when we face another enormous shortfall and fewer options. Think this budget melodrama is bad? Wait for the 2014-15 season.
Tragedy, because we've seen this crisis coming for 15 years, and because we don't suffer from a lack of policy ideas. This isn't a knowledge problem that needs more policy experts, proposals and reports.
Tragedy, because the purpose of politics in a democracy is to act on these good ideas and intentions -- to be powerful -- but our political infrastructure is profoundly broken and dysfunctional.
We lack the places and opportunities in all types of institutions -- not just government -- to identify, discuss and reconcile our policy differences: to create common ground for the common good. In many ways, it's this simple.
We aren't resolving our differences and building support for reform because we spend our time and resources in echo chambers that only magnify our differences, not reconcile them.
The pragmatic solutions to our policy problems will need to be created in all institutions -- not just government -- and my organization, the Citizens League, has demonstrated that finding and building support for these solutions is possible. In fact, people are hungry for this opportunity.
And what political infrastructure we have left is motivated almost entirely by narrow partisan interests, and is actively working against finding solutions. (If you have been urging your political leadership to hold fast and not compromise, you are now part of the problem.)
The ultimate tragedy will be not seeing the opportunity created by this crisis. Minnesota has always been an innovator; a state on the leading edge of "what works."
Recently we've been on the leading edge of nationwide political dysfunction regarding fiscal and tax reform. We should see this as a chance to show the nation a better solution.
Tragedy or opportunity?
So if our policy and political leadership has been characterized by paralysis and cynicism, on what grounds do we have any hope for this better solution?
In poll after poll, and in extensive conversations that the Citizens League conducted in partnership with the Bush Foundation's "Common Cents" project, Minnesotans are hopeful and ready for reform.
When they understand the magnitude of our demographic and fiscal challenges, they are willing to endure short-term pain in order to create long-term solutions. They want our tax system to be better: more fair and productive. They can talk across dramatic ideological differences to find meaningful common ground based on shared civic values.
Our path forward begins with reimagining and rebuilding our political infrastructure: our ability to act on these intentions. In the short term, we need the majority of Minnesotans who favor reforms to make their voices heard through all means -- just not through the type of partisan win/lose battles we've seen in Wisconsin.
In the long-term -- which starts in 2012 -- we need our leaders to articulate a vision for Minnesota that is bigger than ideology and partisanship, and more long-term than the fall election.
We'll need civic leaders in all types of institutions to act on long-term policy proposals. We can't blame this on the politicians when we all have a role to play. We elected them.
The purpose of tragedy in drama has always been to remind people what's really important. From the Mayo brothers to 3M, in Minnesota we've always valued -- and depended on -- a unique and powerful mix of innovation and pragmatism. These values are more important than ever.
What's at stake here is not just the fate of this budget or very real short-term policy dilemmas, but the next generation of civic leadership and capacity in Minnesota.
To waste this opportunity would be a tragedy.
Sean Kershaw is executive director of the Citizens League.
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