It's a well-founded article of faith that Minnesota's prosperity and quality of life owe much to the leadership of progressive business men and women. The tradition of business citizenship is as old as the state. Yankee entrepreneurs came from New England not just to make money, but to build a good state in which to live and work.

As Lori Sturdevant and George Pillsbury write in their wonderful book, "The Pillsburys of Minnesota," these 19th-century business leaders "did not turn to public service out of noblesse oblige, the notion that the wealthy owed service to lesser folks ... [They] believed that only if each individual did his part ... could the whole community thrive."

That same leadership from business is even more necessary today. Minnesota still is building its future on the tremendous assets of a diverse economy led by companies well-positioned for the future; abundant natural resources; high-quality education and health systems, and a workforce second to none.

But our challenges also are great. The four-year high school graduation rate among African-Americans and Hispanics is less than 50 percent, yet most of the growth in tomorrow's workforce will come from these populations.

Minnesota was the only state in a recent study to experience a statistically significant increase in the number of children without health insurance. The Minnesota Department of Transportation identified $65 billion in projects over the next two decades needed to meet the economic demand for bridges and roads, yet can identify only $15 billion to pay for the infrastructure.

The list of red flags and warning signs is long. To their credit, business leaders from across the state are addressing the challenges in a variety of ways and forums. The Itasca Project, for example, recently issued a report, "Higher Education Partnerships for Prosperity," that advocates reforms to restore Minnesota's excellence in education while addressing future workforce needs.

Other business-led initiatives have created the research essential to finding new solutions for old problems. Corporate financial support has been essential to sustaining effective programs and jump-starting new initiatives. And, business leaders have been hands-on participants in forging the kind of private-public partnerships that are the envy of most other states.

But at the risk of sounding like those who ask, "Yeah, but what have you done for me lately?" it's time to ask even more of the business community. The greatest barriers to a future of opportunity for all Minnesotans are the lack of consensus on what needs to be done and the political will to make tough choices.

Political parties and other interest groups aren't going to break through these barriers. Parties focus either on winning or on ideological purity. As columnist Mark Shields said about the Tea Party, political movements today are more interested in excommunicating heretics than they are in finding converts. Interest groups, by definition, are consumed by issues that narrowly benefit their members.

Of course, business has a self-interested agenda. And, unfortunately, in recent years, much of the business community has focused on politics -- not policy. But, too often the antitax legislators supported by business are bereft of ideas when it comes to actually improving education outcomes, modernizing government services, rebuilding our transportation system or reforming our tax code.

So, here is a modest proposal for consideration by the most significant organizations representing Minnesota's businesses:

• Stop investing in candidates who can't see beyond cutting taxes and eliminating government. Instead of business bringing its money to candidates, it should work to bring candidates to a broader vision for a prosperous Minnesota.

• Minnesota's future success depends not just on tweaking education, but on a fundamental overhaul, from pre-K through postgraduate. Accordingly, all business organizations should aggressively advocate for the solid proposals crafted by the business leaders who comprise the Itasca group and engage the public in making these proposals Minnesota's agenda.

• On other important issues (like transportation and tax reform and health care), define a clear and compelling vision of progress and prosperity for the state and the policies it will take to achieve the goal. Then invest the resources, time and talent to build public consensus for solutions.

Businesses have much expertise to offer on a range of issues. By investing in policy, not politics, business organizations may be our best hope for breaking gridlock -- and instead making progress on the issues that matter most to Minnesota's future.


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.