I don’t yet know who will be on the gubernatorial campaign stump come fall. But after the crash-and-burn exercise in futility at the State Capitol in the last three months, I know what the stumpers ought to discuss.
Candidates, you are hereby requested to commence your dissertations on the following subjects at next weekend’s state party conventions — DFLers in Rochester, Republicans in Duluth. Those confabs are expected to narrow the respective fields, but — particularly in the GOP case — not set them. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s plan to skip the Republican endorsing convention tells me Minnesota is in for a hot-and-sticky campaign summer, followed by heavy weather through Nov. 6.
Here are some of the questions I hope candidates answer:
What do you plan to do to make lawmaking work — that is, to actually set a state budget and make laws without shutdowns or lawsuits?
Minnesota’s major political parties have shared control of state government for 26 of the last 28 years. That should have been long enough for bipartisan habits to form. Instead, the habit that’s been acquired is gridlock.
This year’s sorry result sets a new low. The Republican-controlled Legislature crammed the bulk of its work for the year into two bills, a 1,000-page mega-omnibus spending bill and a tax bill with a little education sweetener attached. Both were sent to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton despite his well-telegraphed objections, in an apparent effort to compel him to swallow the provisions he didn’t like. Both were vetoed last week.
Some observers say it will take more than good intentions to break this pattern. A different lawmaking calendar, more use of bipartisan citizen commissions to craft legislation, dropping party designation, giving redistricting power to an independent judicial panel, a refusal to sign “garbage bills” (Dayton showed how it’s done last week) and ranked-choice voting are among the oft-mentioned ideas for diminishing dysfunction. What are yours?
About that tax bill: Should Minnesota simply align its tax code to the new federal changes, sparing lower-income people and larger families from an unintended hit? Or should it make bigger changes to rearrange who pays, and how much, for state and local government?
Dayton’s veto makes tax conformity Job One for the next governor and Legislature. The more ambitious the new governor’s plan is, the more time it’s likely to require for legislative action. That means more risk that Minnesotans could experience a complicated and costly tax filing season in 2019.
What’s your view of the rural-urban divide that has emerged in Minnesota politics — and if you don’t like it, what will you do about it?
It’s not good for Minnesota to have one rural and one urban party. This is a state that’s accustomed to aggregating resources at the state level and distributing them according to needs-based formulas, not political clout. That pattern has been threatened in recent years as some rural legislators have tried to deprive Minneapolis and St. Paul of local government aid and funding for transit and infrastructure.
Some candidates in past elections have gone so far as to promise favoritism for one region at the other’s expense. If your party’s candidates or their interest-group allies play that card, how will you respond?
What’s your plan to financially sustain the state health care programs on which low-income, elderly and disabled people rely — not to mention keep health care affordable for everybody else?
Dayton’s call to extend the life of a circa-1992 tax on health care services past its scheduled December 2019 sunset wasn’t just rejected by Republicans. It was ridiculed as a tax increase on the poor and sick and a breach of the DFL governor’s campaign promises. Dayton backed off but warned that without the so-called “provider tax,” the future of MinnesotaCare and other health programs is in doubt.
He’s right. The provider tax is forecast to raise nearly $700 million in the year ending June 30, 2019. That’s a lot to lose in a part of the state budget that’s already under stress, for three reasons: Minnesota’s elderly and disabled population is growing. The workforce that cares for frail people is drifting away to higher-paying jobs. And the dependability of the federal matching funds that keep programs like MinnesotaCare and Medicaid alive is also uncertain. Trump administration cuts last year are already forecast to cost the state’s health programs $681 million through 2021, according to the state Department of Human Services.
So: Keep the provider tax and expect to be pilloried? Or end it — and then what?
How can Minnesota keep its economy growing in the next decade when its No. 1 economic asset — its workforce — is forecast to barely grow at all?
A demographic dip in Minnesota’s working-age population driven by baby boomer retirements is being felt right now in much of the state. It’s so bad that — remarkably — an inability to hire enough workers has overtaken high taxes as the loudest business climate complaint.
At the same time, Minnesota’s biggest institutional asset in generating skilled workers — public higher education — is getting squeezed and getting no relief from the Legislature. This year, Minnesota State was due for a measly $3 million before Dayton’s veto took it down to $0. The University of Minnesota was stiffed.
Minnesota needs a multipart strategy to get through the next decade without losing major employers to less-labor-challenged places. It should be a plan to both attract newcomers and make the most of the working-age population that’s already here. What’s your plan?
How are you going get Minnesota moving on transportation and infrastructure?
The bonding bill awaiting action on Dayton’s desk is no small achievement in a year that yielded little else. But it only begins to respond to a worsening problem: Minnesota is loaded with 20th-century public infrastructure that’s showing its age. And it did nothing about a problem the next governor will face immediately: Metro Transit’s forecast budget for 2019 and beyond has a $100-million hole that needs filling to keep the transit users and the metro economy moving.
The Wall Street bond house Standard & Poor’s issued a warning to U.S. states last week that might have been aimed at Minnesota. “Significant underspending in maintenance can reduce asset life and increase capital costs, pressuring a government’s future financial flexibility. Failure to maintain and invest in infrastructure could also lead to slower economic growth or public safety lapses,” S&P said. It added ominously: “This will be an area of increasing focus in our analysis” of state creditworthiness.
The old highway funding workhorse — the gas tax — is losing its strength. Legislators balk at general obligation bonding bills bigger than $1 billion. Using cash for capital investments only works in flush times, and isn’t fair to other state priorities. What’s the next governor to do?
We’d like your questions, too.
Watch in early July for the Star Tribune Editorial Board to invite readers to submit questions about the race for governor that you’d like us to answer. One question will be grist for an editorial. I’ll tackle a few others in a column before the primary election. Let the stumping begin!
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.