Fifty years ago, in January 1971, a collection of ideas woven together by a group of citizens and revised by politicians was presented to the Minnesota Legislature by then-Gov. Wendell Anderson. Known at the time as the "Fair School Financing Plan," the measure changed Minnesota's fiscal policy for decades.
Changing tax policy and revenue sharing formulas among governments is normally a subject of stirring interest only among nerds and policy wonks. But the proposed reforms became a key issue for everyone in the 1970 governor's race. And in 1971, enacting them led to the longest legislative session in Minnesota's history. The resulting legislation was quickly dubbed the "Minnesota Miracle" by national experts. Viewing all this through the lens of today's internet- and social-media-driven politics, the miracle was not the legislation itself, but the fascinating process that brought the legislation to fruition.
A look at that history provides insight into today's legislative stalemates.
Complaints about high property taxes were not a new grievance for legislators and members of the Citizen's League, a civic think tank. During 1969-70, a league committee met in the evenings for hours at a time (computers, e-mails, Zoom meetings and social media chattering then being nonexistent) and listened to educators, academics, and local and state officials discuss property taxes, school finances and government operations.
The discussions covered the impact of taxes on businesses, homeowners and renters. The focus was on the distribution of state funds to school districts, cities and counties for education, roads, police, fire and other services. After nine months of fact gathering, the committee analyzed alternative ways to raise and distribute the necessary revenue.
This arduous process led to an idea that was innovative and politically dangerous. It became the basis for the league's controversial recommendation for new legislation.
The recommendation shifted considerable revenue raising to the state level, and away from local units of government and the property tax. The committee report noted the broader array of tax options (e.g., sales and income taxes) available to the state. The report said the state should raise and collect a greater portion of necessary revenue then distribute it to the school districts (state aid) and to cities and counties (local government aid, or LGA).
The report argued that a centralized state system was a more efficient way to raise money than having hundreds of local government units each set its own tax rates and tax policy, and that state distribution of revenue was a more equitable method of financing schools since incomes and the property tax bases of school districts varied widely.
This disparity led to poorer districts having to raise property tax rates higher than others, which in turn led to inequality in educational opportunity. Courts had recently expressed concerns about the constitutionality of such inequality.
The recommendations caused a political uproar when endorsed by Anderson, the DFL candidate for governor, in October 1970. Anderson won the election and the uproar increased when he introduced his plan, generally based on the league's recommendations. The Legislature was controlled by the Republicans (then called Conservatives) and supporters of the plan knew they needed Conservative votes for passage.
While the battles over the plan were hard fought, they were non-partisan. The opponents and supporters of the bill were well-informed and savvy, and they fought hard over who should pay how much for government services. That these politically sensitive tax and fiscal issues were not designated as "caucus issues" (i.e., no pressure from your political caucus to either support or oppose the bill) gave individual legislators freedom to vote their consciences and showed an understanding of the roles of governing and politics that would truly be a miracle were it to happen today.
To break the logjam, the final discussions were held behind closed doors over several months at the governor's residence, with only legislative leadership and top governor's staff present. Republican Senate Majority Leader Stanley Holmquist of Hallock ran the meetings. No votes were taken nor minutes kept.
In October, after months of negotiations and compromises, Anderson's plan was presented to the Legislature for a final public vote. It passed with solid bipartisan support.
The legislation made major changes to fiscal policy. State taxes went up significantly (23%) and property taxes throughout the state went down. Revenue distribution became more fair. In the next election, 80% of those who had voted for the bill were re-elected.
A number of critical moments in the passage of this milestone legislation are worth remembering 50 years later: the methodical effort by the Citizens League in framing the issue in a new light, the courage of Gov. Anderson in embracing the proposal, the visible support for the legislation by Holmquist and the daring shown by legislators of both parties who voted for the controversial plan.
In today's internet-based political system, when almost every issue is deemed to be partisan and science and facts are attacked, a 1971-type miracle would appear to be impossible. Every problem generates so many simplistic tweets, poorly thought-out blogs, half-baked solutions and people rushing to judgments that are condemned or cheered with even more simplistic social media postings that the legislative process is stymied.
However, getting citizens from both major parties to first spend time thinking, gathering facts, defining problems and only then developing a solution, as the Citizen's League did, while difficult, may still be possible.
So there is hope. Changing presidents is a huge step forward for our country. Facts, science and competency appear to be in ascendancy in Washington and St. Paul. Effective vaccines have been produced in record time and are being distributed. The Problem Solvers Caucus in Washington, with Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips playing an important role, has shown it can be a force for compromise.
But all of us (especially journalists) must continue to expose false tweets and overly simplistic social media postings. So maybe, just maybe, with enough work, miracles can still happen.
Tom Berg is a former member of the Minnesota House and a former U.S. attorney for Minnesota.