‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” That was the mantra in government for the last several years of budget crisis in Minnesota. The result, however, was short-term decisionmaking focused primarily on making the books appear to add up.
The new year ahead offers bigger opportunities.
In 2013, despite the fact that we started the year with another $600-million-plus budget deficit, the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton started to shift focus to the intermediate and long-term. The investment the Legislature made last spring in early childhood, all-day kindergarten and college-tuition freezes for middle-class families started us down that path. Nonetheless, too much time and attention was necessarily spent cleaning up old messes.
That’s why the news was so welcome earlier this month that Minnesota’s economic growth continues to outpace the nation’s, that our state’s books are honestly and structurally balanced (with some cushion), and that budgetary sleights of hand like the school shift are fully paid off. It gives Minnesota policymakers some breathing room to imagine what we want our state to become.
Our budget stability also offers legislators a chance to step away from zero-sum partisan fights that have not served Minnesota well. The truth is that Minnesotans generally agree on a common agenda, the heart of which is a strong economy generating sustainable and broadly shared prosperity and a growing middle class. As I see it, that means taking on the dual challenges of achieving global economic leadership and closing a devastating income and opportunity gap. I am confident that is an agenda legislators of all parties can rally around.
We cannot achieve prosperity unless we continue to be a state where solid, innovative businesses can grow. Democrats need to listen more attentively to small businesses and their legitimate concerns about red tape. We cannot forget that small-business owners are critical members of the middle class.
But it’s also time for policymakers to reject the mind-set that cutting taxes is beginning and end of the discussion when it comes to the economy. Most businesspeople I talk to don’t agree. Indeed, that tax obsession has stifled meaningful discussion about the long-term sustainability of Minnesota’s economy. The conversation should not be about whether we are a high- or low-tax state. It should be about whether we are a high-value state.
As groups like Greater MSP have pointed out, Minnesota can settle for nothing less than global leadership in areas from health care to food processing to advanced manufacturing and technology where we have a competitive edge. Our global competitors understand that government is an essential partner in providing strategic investments in education, infrastructure, transportation and basic research. We can find common ground about what it will take for Minnesota businesses to compete and win against the best in the world.
On the other hand, we cannot ignore the reality that too many hardworking folks are being left behind. Accelerating income inequality is not only morally offensive; it’s bad economics. We have already crossed a threshold where the gap between the very rich and everyone else is causing a drag on our economic growth. That is especially true in a state like Minnesota where serious racial and geographic inequities are exacerbated by our rapidly growing diversity.
That was why I was heartened when Republican Minority Leader Kurt Daudt responded to the recent budget news by joining me in prioritizing the need to create opportunity for Minnesotans who are falling behind. There are steps we can take together to achieve that priority.
Our safety net for vulnerable Minnesotans has been fraying over a decade of cuts. Making sure every Minnesotan has stable housing and basic health care is fundamental. But we must also focus on making work pay, allowing people to take responsibility for their own lives. An increased minimum wage; job protections when a worker or her family member gets sick or pregnant; affordable retraining opportunities; smart small-town economic development, and bold initiatives like Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zone will all make a difference.
A crisis may be a terrible thing to waste. But the opportunity created by our expanding economy and the fruits of the Legislature’s commitment in 2013 to balancing the budget honestly would be an even worse thing to waste. Let’s not miss our chance.
Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, is speaker of the Minnesota House.