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Continued: Public policy in Minnesota: It's a 'we' thing

  • Article by: DANE SMITH
  • Last update: August 18, 2014 - 8:52 AM

While the official business lobby may have opposed the tax and minimum-wage increases, substantial business support lined up behind much of the new investment. Groups like the Itasca Project, primarily composed of leaders of our state’s largest corporate entities, actually led the way more than a decade ago, drawing attention to a racial equity gap in school achievement and economic outcome, along with the need for transportation investment. Improved investments in early childhood initiatives, and reducing racial disparities in education have been spearheaded by iconic business giants such as Target and General Mills, and by umbrella groups like the United Way.

Minnesota’s largest religious denominations also lined up strongly, in a carefully nonpartisan way, behind most of the equity agenda. Minnesota’s Joint Religious Legislative Coalition includes the leadership of two of our largest denominations, Lutherans and Catholics, as well as Islamic, Jewish and many other Protestant churches. The coalition has long pushed for sufficient and progressive taxation and a host of specific economic policies that lift up the poor and low-income families. Also coming on strong at the State Capitol in recent years is ISAIAH, composed of more than 100 mostly Christian churches that aggressively push “to establish racial and economic justice.’’

A notion long advanced by some religious fundamentalists that government action to reduce economic inequality is the creature of an “irreligious left’’ was never accurate, and it’s particularly false in Minnesota.

Decidedly nonpartisan philanthropic foundations, and perhaps most nonprofit organizations (which account for about 10 percent of Minnesota’s workforce and economy), also have strongly supported equity policy. Many of the major foundations in Minnesota have elevated the word “equity,’’ or a more inclusive prosperity, in their mission and goal statements. The Minnesota Budget Project, a public-policy voice of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, has for years been one of the most effective voices calling for increasing public investment, for reducing economic inequality and for a more progressive tax structure.

So the consensus is strong, if by no means universal. Business interests, despite strongly supporting parts of the equity agenda — especially early childhood and transit investment — will continue to call for tax cuts and back candidates who would cut public investment in a broader equity agenda. Some business voices will argue that the equity investments they seek can be financed through reallocation and redesign of government. That makes some sense.

In the meantime, we can be heartened to see more conservatives reframing their narrative around inequality. And let’s consider the idea that this momentous shift could be cast as a conservative statement, a reaffirmation of a traditional Minnesota culture marked by an unselfish, forward-looking business spirit, strong families and communities, and an egalitarian barn-raising, church-social impulse. All for one. One for all.

This is the ethos that has put Minnesota on the cutting edge of technological innovation and has given us more Fortune 500 companies per capita than almost any other state, while also keeping us at the forefront of improvements in public education and health, and out front on human rights, women’s equality, civil rights and integration, and environmental health.

Most Minnesotans understand that the market forces and geopolitics that drive inequality are global and national in scope and there’s only so much we can do. But we should be proud to have reasserted ourselves as a people who nevertheless will act locally to broaden our prosperity within our borders.

And no matter what the outcomes in November, we can’t turn back from this new imperative.


Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a public-policy organization that seeks to reduce economic and racial inequality in Minnesota.

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  • Gov. Mark Dayton signed the minimum wage bill into law at a ceremony Monday, April 14, 2014, in the Minnesota State Capitol rotunda. The bill increases Minnesota's minimum wage to $9.50 per hour, and indexes it to inflation.

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