As a former legislator, I know well the challenges that lawmakers will face when they convene on Jan. 5. With the COVID-19 pandemic and its profound damage to our economy, education system and way of life as the sobering backdrop, Republicans and Democrats in Minnesota's divided Legislature will have to work together if they hope to accomplish much.
Lessons learned in 2020 should serve as guideposts to a successful outcome in 2021 for all Minnesotans.
Lesson 1: Minnesotans chose divided government. This is a diverse state with divided government. Now more than ever it is critical for lawmakers to find common ground and de-emphasize division.
While President-elect Joe Biden won Minnesota by a comfortable margin, Republicans performed well in state legislative races, retaining a slim majority in the Minnesota Senate and gaining a handful of seats in the DFL-controlled Minnesota House. With a DFL governor and divided Legislature, neither party will have total control of the state's policy agenda.
This dynamic should encourage legislators to set aside the more dogmatic elements of their agenda and focus instead on regaining our state's equilibrium.
Lesson 2: The budget situation is volatile. When the 2021 legislative session convenes, the governor and Legislature will begin crafting the state's biennial budget to fund E-12 education, public health programs, public safety, and other state programs and public services. This is never an easy task, but fortunately the latest forecast shows the state budget situation improving, with a manageable $1.3 billion deficit expected for the fiscal year 2021-22.
With the state on stronger fiscal footing than previously projected, the next budget should not require a massive overhaul. Given the uncertain economic conditions and the ongoing impact of COVID, this is not the time for drastic permanent changes in spending or state tax policy.
Lesson 3: Minnesota businesses stepped up in a time of need. Although the pandemic has impacted Minnesota businesses in varying degrees, 2020 was a challenging year for all Minnesota businesses. Employers have been focused on responding to the pandemic, adapting to a changing work environment while keeping employees and customers safe, and navigating state and federal directives. Furthermore, we learned this year that public-private partnerships can help address major challenges facing the state.
In April, as Minnesota struggled to acquire the personal protective equipment needed for health care workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic, companies like Ecolab, Donaldson, C.H. Robinson, 3M, Toro, Polaris and Target stepped up to utilize their supply chains to help the state.
Target and Best Buy gave their employees pay increases. UnitedHealth Group pledged $100 million to COVID relief.
These are just a handful of examples of the ways Minnesota employers stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic to ease the suffering of Minnesotans.
On the technology front, innovative initiatives led by Best Buy, Land O'Lakes, and others have helped deliver high-speed broadband and tech devices to underserved communities, which has been especially critical for students in an era of distance learning.
If 2020 taught us anything, it's the value of having large employers based in Minnesota and invested in our state's future. 2021 is not the time for the Legislature to add new mandates on employers or employees, which would hamper our state's ability to emerge from the pandemic successfully.
Lesson 4: Educational and technology gaps require urgent attention. The death of George Floyd shined a spotlight on the challenge of racism and racial inequities in our state. The governor and Legislature began the work of addressing this challenge with their passage of landmark police reform earlier this year. But the work is far from complete, especially as it relates to educational inequality.
It is becoming clear that the state's already-massive learning gaps that particularly plague students of color are being exacerbated by the pandemic.
Lawmakers should fearlessly attack the state's persistent achievement gaps with reforms that have proved successful, even when those reforms meet resistance within the education establishment. Minor adjustments are not enough. To change the trajectory for thousands of students of color for whom the current system is a failure, bold and transformational action is required.
The proposal of Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari and former Supreme Court Justice Alan Page is just such a measure. The Legislature should embrace this proposed amendment to Minnesota's Constitution that would provide that all children are entitled to a "quality" education.
Additionally, beginning with early childhood education, the state's focus should be on helping the children who need it most. That means prioritizing scholarships for low-income families, a cost-effective approach that has been proven effective.
As we reflect on the end of a traumatic and exhausting year, we should learn from the past and commit to achieving a better future. Is that possible? Filled with the hope that a new year brings, and aware of the proven ability of state leaders on both sides of the aisle to pull together in challenging times, my answer is an optimistic "yes."
Charlie Weaver is executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership.