Want a surefire holiday party conversation starter? Last week's e-mailbag contained this suggestion:

"Over the next 20 years, which of the following will have the most positive impact on the future of Minnesota and its economy: 1) The new Vikings football stadium; 2) Copper nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota; or 3) The multi-billion-dollar expansion of the Mayo Clinic and greater Rochester?"

That question will get your guests scooting toward the door, you say? You may not have enough state policy wonks on your invitation list. I'm thinking of starting a service that matches aspiring hosts with charming guests willing to elucidate fiscal disparities or the finer points of Vikings stadium financing in exchange for a plate of hors d'oeuvres.

I found the question so compelling that I called the sender to quibble about its premise. (Hanging around with politicians teaches one never to respond with a simple, direct answer.)

If those three projects are my only choices, I allowed, I'll pick No. 3. The Destination Medical Center is the big job-generator on that list. It touts the prospect of 45,000 permanent new jobs by 2033, besting the PolyMet mining prediction by a factor of 100. Better still, a good share of the new jobs in Rochester will be the highly desirable kind — high-skill, high-wage, high potential to spin off indirect but lucrative economic activity.

The new Vikings stadium could generate more construction jobs in the next three years. It will also move jobs to the tony new Downtown East complex envisioned for its environs. But most of those jobs will be transplants from other Minnesota places, which isn't the kind of job growth economists favor.

But, I advised my party-loving e-correspondent, he had asked a trick question. The obvious correct answer is 4) None of the above. (See how much I've picked up from politicians?)

State government is doing a great deal today that's intended to secure prosperity in 20 years, I opined — and none of the three things his question mentions is most important among the state's activities. No single project is — not even the behemoth in Rochester.

What really counts is getting state government's basics right. It's the unsexy stuff like how, and how much, money goes to schools, colleges, transportation, law enforcement and health care for the very poor. Tax money is always limited, and spending it in ways that maximize future public gain is always state government's most important challenge. That's still as true today, when fiscal blue skies are finally emerging, as it was five years ago when the state budget and economy sat under a storm cloud.

Delaying or "shifting" school payments was Minnesota's shelter from that storm in 2009-11. Getting the school shift finally unshifted with $825 million forecast to spare, as announced on Dec. 5, is a major achievement for Minnesota's shared enterprise. But lawmakers being human, a surplus brings the risk that they'll cease their close scrutiny of state spending on the basics. They'll be diverted by ever-popular election-year tax giveaways or shiny new projects.

My friend's question suggests that some of that has already happened.

After that forecast was released, I asked state Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter about the trend lines on state government's basics. Health care spending long has been the out-of-control climber. But the 2011 stats just released show the lowest rate of growth in overall state health care costs in nearly 20 years — a tolerable 2.0 percent. What else is worrisome — corrections, pensions, transportation?

His answer reminded me that he hangs around with politicians, too. And economists.

"I'd reframe your question. Where are we not getting enough value? You could say that spending on any number of things is growing too fast, if you don't like what we're getting out of it. The questions should be: Are we getting improvement in our kids' test results? Are fourth-graders reading and doing math better or not? Are our higher-education institutions continuing to be leading teaching institutions, as well as research? I'd much rather that we focus on those things."

Some of Schowalter's questions have encouraging answers. Minnesota fourth-graders led the nation in math in the latest National Assessment of Education Progress, and the long-unyielding achievement gap in reading is starting to close. The share of the state's 5-year-olds assessed to be ready for kindergarten reached 72.8 percent in 2012, up from 50 percent nearly a decade ago. That's a big positive step for those kids and this state.

But the results that ought to be policymakers' guides aren't clear in every budget category. Minnesota used to put policy wonks to work measuring results at the State Planning Agency and its Minnesota Milestones program. Both got the budget ax a decade ago. Both would be helpful just now in keeping distractible elected officials focused on the basics.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.