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The Minnesota Legislature soon will adjourn without a single word about what may be the most important single number defining the state's future: 225.

That's the total net gain in Minnesota's population in the last fiscal year. It's not even a rounding error in a state of 5.6 million people.

Certainly, much of the depressed population growth is a result of COVID. But the underlying trends are all headed in the wrong direction.

Minnesota's birthrate hasn't recovered from the Great Recession and shows no sign of turning upward. As an aging state in an aging country, its death rate is up. Fewer immigrants are arriving from other countries and fewer transfers from other states.

Yes, we also are losing some people to low-tax states and states with warmer climates, as some conservatives charge. But that's not our biggest challenge. The biggest demographic loss is among college-aged young people. Young Minnesota adults aren't staying and new ones aren't arriving.

Without policy changes we're not likely to see a significant turnaround in attracting and keeping young adults, according to state demographer Susan Brower. "Each year we see losses in that age group, so while we may see a rebound with the next data release as the immediate impacts of the pandemic on college decisions have passed, the longer-term issue of a slow-growing population [and] slow-growing labor force will remain."

Overall, the state's population is stagnating. The projections for population gains between 2018 and 2070 recently were lowered to a gain of 1.1 million new residents. Even that estimate likely will fall.

"We will update later this year once the 2020 census results have been fully released for us to use as inputs to the projection," said Brower. "I expect that number will fall somewhat in the next round of projections given what has happened with birthrates, death rates and migration in the last five years."

It's not just that legislators have ignored the reality of losing young adults, it's that they are oblivious to its implications. Look at the proposals coming from St. Paul. Public safety? Hire more cops. Education? Hire more teachers. Child care? Hire more caregivers.

Meanwhile, Republicans promote deep, permanent tax cuts while Democrats push large, permanent spending increases.

What world are they living in? Certainly not the Minnesota of 2022. There are not enough young people to fill all the slots needed to expand critical public services or to generate the tax revenue needed to sustain a drain on state budget coffers.

Simply put, if Minnesota doesn't figure out how to retain and attract young adults — tomorrow's families, workers and entrepreneurs — then the future of the state is bleak.

What could policymakers be doing?

Start with water. Minnesota's unique competitive advantage is our bountiful water. It is a key to our economic future and to the recreational and aesthetic amenities that attract families and young adults. It will become an even more valuable economic and lifestyle asset as climate change threatens water supplies and quality in other parts of the country.

"Around 50 years from now, many U.S. regions may see water supplies reduced by a third of their current size, while demand continues to increase," according to a commentary published by Harvard University. In fact, says Harvard, "By 2071, nearly half of the 204 fresh water basins in the United States may not be able to meet the monthly water demand."

Yet Minnesota policymakers can't see beyond the voters critical to their next election to protect this great asset. Will legislators protect the state's water resources by asking more of farmers and other landowners, saying no to sulfide mines or investing a significant share of the state's $9.25 billion surplus in conservation, preservation and protection of water resources? Nope. Stakeholders in those issues vote; the nonexistent young people don't have a voice in today's political world.

Legislators also could be challenging the status quo in how public services are delivered. One of many examples is public safety. It's a top issue for many Minnesotans and an important quality of life concern for those looking at the best states in which to start families. Minnesota's public safety strategies need to be as innovative as they are effective.

For example, let's question whether law enforcement agencies are organized in the best way to meet the demographic reality that makes it unlikely the state can hire its way into being safer. Minnesota has more than 415 law enforcement agencies with about 10,600 licensed and active officers. Should the luxury of local police departments give way to better and fully staffed public safety agencies that can put cops and other resources on the front lines and out of administrative positions? If departments and agencies were combined, for example, consolidating suburban departments by geography, would that produce greater efficiency in how police are deployed, reduce overhead and promote consistency in training and procedures? Seems likely.

Yes, there are barriers, not least of which are unions, cultural differences and parochial pride and a sense of security in having local cops, but policing needs to respond to the reality of shifting demographics.

The state's enormous budget surplus is a generational opportunity to attract a new generation. Today's marketplace needs new solutions to make child care accessible and affordable. Education, long a core strength of the state, needs more than a few tweaks to address challenges ranging from the need to assure that all kids are prepared for success when they start school to fixing the achievement gap to the crisis of high school graduates who enter college in need of remedial classes in basic areas.

Minnesota needs to also be a state that values diversity; moving in the direction of states like Florida when it comes to inclusion is immoral and antithetical to our best interests.

Yes, our three months of March this spring give us weather hurdles to climb. But the presence of innovative career opportunities, robust recreational and entertainment amenities and the confidence that our most precious resource, water, will be clean and plentiful can be the foundational pillars of our future.

As a state, our number is up if our number continues to be 225.

Tom Horner is a public-relations consultant and was the Independence Party of Minnesota's 2010 candidate for governor.