How a new Legislature earns respect

  • Article by: TIM PENNY and TOM HORNER
  • Updated: December 1, 2012 - 5:01 PM

Three ways to shore up Minnesota.

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Senate Majority Leader-elect Tom Bakk and House Speaker-designate Paul Thissen.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Here's a message for incoming legislators: Minnesotans aren't fond of you.

Individually, some of you may be quite well-liked. After all, you now have an election certificate. Collectively, however, the Legislature is held in low esteem. Republicans in particular have been chastened, losing their majorities. Obviously, the record of the past few years, including a government shutdown and ethical scandals, did not sit well with voters. For their part, Democrats need to be mindful that the public has lost trust in the Legislature's ability to get things done.

There are no laurels upon which either party can rest. There is too much work to do. Minnesota still is a pretty nice house, but the roof needs patching, some of the windows let in winter's winds -- and have you noticed that musty smell in the basement? Legislators will succeed in finding solutions to the big challenges only if they are able to rebuild long-lost trust with Minnesotans. Here are three suggestions to start the task:

First, commit to tax integrity before tackling tax reform. Begin by calling a tax a tax, then use the money only for the intended purpose. No more bait-and-switch.

Remember the "health impact fee," the 2005 tax on tobacco? Gov. Tim Pawlenty needed revenue to close a budget gap, so he created the charade of the fee to move the state off its own fiscal cliff. A higher tax on tobacco is good policy. It should be raised again. But call it what it is, a tax, and use at least some of the proceeds to reduce tobacco use and mitigate the health costs that smoking imposes on all Minnesotans.

How about bringing transparency to other taxes? We can start with the fees tacked on to homeowners and auto insurance policies. These surcharges were created to fund worthwhile programs for fire safety and auto theft prevention. The reality is that a good share of the revenue now is siphoned off to balance the rest of the budget. Legislators should demand that all taxes -- including those that masquerade as "fees" -- serve the intended purpose or be eliminated. Anything else is dishonest.

Second, legislators should bring some common sense to the relationship between state and local governments. The Legislature could start by agreeing to a three-year sunset on all the mandates state government imposes on counties and cities. Use the time to take a hard look at whether the obligations that seemed like a good idea 10 or 20 years ago still have value today. If not, get rid of them. If they make sense, the state should fund them and legislators should take responsibility for finding the necessary tax revenue. This principle also should be applied to school funding, where delayed payments have allowed the state to pretend it has a balanced budget while unfairly burdening local school districts.

The third suggestion involves political reform. Imagine the trust that would be built if legislative and congressional districts were drawn on the basis of fairness and balance, not to protect incumbents or to benefit one political party. Redistricting -- the once-a-decade process of drawing new political boundaries -- should be taken out of the hands of legislators and the courts and given to an independent commission.

Legislators should also pass ranked-choice voting and offer the promise that Minnesotans no longer will have to cast their ballots for the least objectionable candidate. This process -- already used in the state's largest cities -- allows people to rank their choices, casting first-, second- and third-place votes. A simple process -- for which voting technology exists -- eliminates the lowest vote-getter until one candidate emerges with a majority. If you're tired of the influence of money in politics and campaigns rooted in anger, ranked-choice voting is at least part of the solution.

In addition, legislators should raise the bar on placing state constitutional amendments on the ballot. We can all agree that changing our Constitution should reflect a broad bipartisan consensus. Accordingly, let's require that before going to the ballot, an amendment must receive a supermajority vote in the Legislature or that it must be approved by consecutive sessions of the Legislature. These sensible changes would require their own constitutional amendment, but they would provoke a discussion well worth having.

We hope this is a Legislature that dares to think big, especially in tax reform, education and health care. But bold solutions often start with small steps. Rebuilding trust between voters and legislators needs to be the first step.

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Tom Horner is a public-affairs consultant and was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and is a former Democratic member of Congress. Both are former Independence Party candidates for governor.

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