Otto Von Bismarck once said: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”
At the end of this year’s Minnesota legislative session, politics should focus on the “art of the must-doable.”
There are some things we at the Minneapolis Regional Chamber believe our state must do to maintain and improve economic competitiveness. Fortunately, these issues are largely nonpartisan and should find bipartisan support in our uniquely divided Legislature.
At the same time, we’re not naive. We recognize that even seemingly nonpartisan issues can become fodder for blue-vs.-red fights. Let’s reframe the conversation and agree to make progress before the Legislature adjourns on these key issues: workforce development, education, transportation and housing.
With a state unemployment rate of 3.2%, we must get more Minnesotans off the sidelines and into the workforce. Employers are facing workforce shortages, which we should use as an opportunity to expand and diversify our employee base. Education and workforce training are on the must-do list.
We support training programs that serve the unemployed and underemployed. The state can grow its economy and boost tax revenue organically by increasing the number of unemployed people who secure employment, the number of the underemployed who increase their wages and the number of part-time workers who secure full-time jobs.
A good example of this is Atomic Data’s partnership with Summit Academy OIC in north Minneapolis. That program provides tuition-free IT training for low-income Minnesotans. Gonkama Johnson, 30, is the son of Liberian immigrant parents and a member of the program’s first cohort. Johnson briefly attended Concordia University in St. Paul and had a series of low-paying jobs before ending up homeless. Then he came across an ad for the Atomic Data/Summit Academy program. Now Johnson works at Atomic Data and makes $36,000 a year with full benefits. In three years, he expects to earn $60,000, and in five years he could double his entry-level salary.
(Opinion editor’s note: See also another article about this partnership and about Johnson’s experience — “Filling tech jobs and breaking social barriers in the Twin Cities: An initiative for the impatient,” Opinion Exchange, Feb. 3; tinyurl.com/opex-atomic.)
Minnesotans also need to be able to get to their jobs. That’s one of the reasons investments in our transportation system are a must-do.
Nationally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is advocating for an increase in federal gas tax. There is no magic way for government to pay for infrastructure without collecting the money from someone first. The common-sense thing to do is to collect it from users of that infrastructure.
That’s certainly a cost. But there is also a cost to inaction. We see those costs when businesses can’t deliver goods on time, get to job sites on time or make more service calls. Employees pay those costs in wear and tear on their vehicles and time lost sitting in congestion — wasted time where they’re not working or spending time with family or friends.
Minnesota’s gas tax is 100% constitutionally dedicated to roads and bridges, and 40 cents of every $1 goes back to local communities. Other states are making investments in their systems. Last month, Ohio became the third state this year to raise or reform its gas tax, under a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine. Alabama and Arkansas were the other two states to take action on the gas tax this year.
We must also improve transit systems across the state to increase access to jobs and attract future workers. A recent report we undertook found a 3-to-1 return on investment on transit. And 81% of the benefits of an improved transit system would be enjoyed by people and businesses using the region’s street and highway system. We all benefit when people can get around the region faster and more efficiently.
Finally, housing affordability is increasingly an area of concern for employers and employees. People who are worried about losing their homes can’t be productive — and 1 in 5 workers in the Twin Cities are cost-burdened by housing, spending more than 30% of their monthly income on that line item, according to a new report from the Family Housing Fund. The business community believes we should consider housing a key part of our region’s economic infrastructure.
We support housing policies and initiatives that will create new units and support regional growth. This is an issue that will require long-term work, but progress needs to be made this year, before our region slips into a serious danger zone on housing affordability.
The business community understands that governing is difficult work and reaching consensus after months at the State Capitol can be strenuous, arduous and grueling. We appreciate the long hours that legislators and the governor are putting in this week. We believe agreement on these key issues will position our state for continued growth. Success can pave the way for a new type of politics that rewards those who get things done. For Minnesota, it’s a must-do.
Jonathan Weinhagen is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber (mplschamber.com).