Representative government tends to be a reactive and myopic enterprise. It responds to the perceived directives of voters in the previous election and the projected preferences of voters in the next one.
Yet state government is also the people's instrument for shaping their shared future. This year more than most, Minnesota could use a legislative session that takes a long view. No emergency requires immediate action. But the state is on the precipice of dramatic demographic changes that over the next 25 years could undermine its position as a regional economic leader.
The number of working-aged adults is forecast to fall even as the share of Minnesotans over age 65 rapidly rises. State government has a crucial role to play in maximizing workforce training and business productivity, keeping seniors independent and engaged, and educating the next generation to fully contribute to society.
Gov. Mark Dayton and the 2015 Legislature (which convenes Tuesday) are entrusted with ensuring that state government plays that role well. Their success will depend in large measure on their willingness to favor long-term gain for the whole state over short-term, self-interested expediency.
That kind of gain is most sorely needed on two fronts. Efforts to upgrade Minnesota's deteriorating transportation infrastructure and increase the size and skills of the state's workforce should get top billing at the 2015 Legislature. We'll be rooting for fixes like these:
• A comprehensive transportation funding increase. The state needs a funding strategy that serves both highways and transit, in both the metro area and Greater Minnesota, and that is dependable enough to allow for both more borrowing and pay-as-you-go spending. Three decades of failing to keep up with maintenance needs, let alone the transit demands of a growing and changing population, have created a backlog that can't be shortened with one-time or one-region measures. A December 2012 report found that an additional $21.2 billion in spending is required through 2032 just to maintain today's performance of the transportation system.
We're not persuaded by the claims that reordering priorities and demanding more efficiency from the Minnesota Department of Transportation will provide the funding surge that's needed to keep goods and people moving. We're also aware that the state's gas tax, now 28.5 cents per gallon, falls disproportionately on lower-income people and those in Greater Minnesota. It's also been a lagging performer as vehicle fuel consumption drops and road repair costs climb.
That said, low prices make this an opportune time to raise the gas tax, and it's hard to envision a funding surge in the near term that does not call on this old workhorse to work harder. But 2015 should also see Minnesota begin a transition to other ways of paying for the transportation system it will need in decades to come.
• A multiphase strategy for a skills boost among Minnesota workers. In the near term, that should mean wider avenues for adult retraining and college degree completion; better coordination between higher education and employers through internships and apprenticeships, and more opportunity for high school students to acquire college-level credits or technical certification while in high school.
But those measures won't be sufficient in years to come if school outcomes don't improve for children from low-income and minority families. Minnesota won't have the workforce it needs in 2030 unless it resolves in 2015 to educate every child to his or her full potential. Making quality preschool available to every Minnesota child would be a major step in that direction. So would lengthening the school day and year, as well as ensuring that the most able teachers are employed to teach the most at-risk children. Sparing high-performing young teachers from layoffs during downturns ought to be a no-brainer; teacher tenure law changes to make that possible should become law this year.
Better transportation and a more skilled workforce aren't discreet goals. A more robust metro transit system or a high-speed rail link to Rochester would be a magnet to brainpower from other states. A long-term plan to improve roads would signal to businesses that make and ship goods that Minnesota is a good place to grow.
Similar connections bind other issues that belong on the Legislature's agenda. For example, Minnesota can't do all it might to improve education or transit if it continues to overspend on a confinement program of questionable constitutionality for sex offenders. It can't redeem victims of mental illness for productive lives if it continues to "treat" them in costly correctional institutions.
It can't keep older workers or young parents on the job without allowing them the flexibility to also be caregivers for small children or frail elderly parents. It can't maximize the size of the workforce unless health care remains available and affordable. It can't expect all of its children to reach their full potential as long as Native American schools are housed in decrepit facilities that impede learning, or some children suffer preventable abuse.
If legislators focus on these and other issues with similar long-term implications, they're likely to find themselves much too busy to dredge up old quarrels. The new Senate office building is half-completed and here to stay. MNsure isn't going away as long as the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land. The DFLers in the governor's office and Senate majority stand ready to turn back any efforts by House Republicans to repeal their proudest accomplishments of the last two years.
To his credit, House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt has said he isn't interested in spending the next five months passing bills that are sure to die in the Senate or on the governor's desk. He says he is asking his committee chairs to lead the House in bipartisan problem-solving. Add a vow to seek solutions that will serve Minnesota's interests for more than one election cycle, and Daudt's directive will get this lawmaking season off to a good start.