A Jan. 7 commentary (“Ideas for improving workers’ lot (open minds requested)”) imploring conservatives and liberals to be more open-minded as both seek “the right things to do to more equitably serve working people” hit just the right note as the 2019 Minnesota legislative session gets underway.
And it’s especially helpful that this appeal came from Minnesota’s venerable conservative thought leader, Mitch Pearlstein, founder of and now senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. His commentary notes a growing body of conservative concern for the working class and those left behind, summarized in the provocative book “The Once and Future Worker,” by Oren Cass.
Using the word “equitable” and emphasizing worsening inequality has not exactly been the strong suit of the conservative movement. Conservatives have typically minimized inequalities and their importance, or blamed cultural behaviors for them, and in so doing alienated people of color in our increasingly diverse urban and suburban regions.
Similarly, many liberals are chastising themselves for a lack of open-mindedness and sufficient attention to the socio-economic condition of rural regions and the plight of the white working class.
Growth & Justice, the organization I serve, also as senior fellow and president emeritus, has been engaging in a constructive statewide conversation, with Pearlstein and many other groups and individuals, seeking consensus on solutions that create a more equitable and environmentally sustainable economy and society.
In formal partnership with the group OneMN.org, after conferences in Granite Falls and Hinckley and listening to hundreds of ordinary Minnesotans under the banner of our Thriving by Design process, we recently issued more than 50 general and specific policy recommendations for the 2019 Legislature. And we are assembling a comprehensive “One Minnesota Equity Blueprint” to guide public policy over the next decade.
We are committed to a practical and business-minded equity imperative, writ large, strongly integrated with climate action and rebuilding our physical infrastructure. We believe that our damaging disparities are deeply interrelated, that these inequalities are limiting our human potential in rural regions, which also are becoming more racially diverse, and in metro Minnesota, too. All our regions can benefit from the jobs and private-sector growth stimulated by new investments in human capital, climate action and infrastructure renewal.
Specific policy recommendations include: more flexibility in the regulatory and tax obligations for farmers and rural child-care providers and affordable housing developers; tax credits and deductions for lower-income families; redoubled efforts at racial equity in education attainment and employment and economic outcomes; acceleration of renewable energy conversion; expanding health care coverage with a MinnesotaCare buy-in option; more investment in physical infrastructure that includes highways in greater Minnesota and transit and mobility needs in all regions; welcoming immigrants and helping them realize their full potential, and reinforcing the basic-needs safety net, along with boosting wages and benefits for all low-income workers.
A prime example of open-mindedness around equity is the consensus emerging between Republicans and Democrats around childhood development, with more focus on the earliest stages, from prenatal to age 3. F1, the first House bill introduced, represents some of the best thinking that has emerged from more than a year of Pre-Natal to 3 Policy Forums, co-sponsored by state Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, and state Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud.
Our comprehensive set of priorities, if not all the specific policies, is reasonably consistent with and respectful of the goals of groups across the spectrum. These include the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum, the Minnesota Business Partnership and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Main Street Alliance, and regional urban and rural business groups and developers, such as the Minnesota Association of Development Organizations.
We hold no illusions that agreement on the devilish details will be easy. But hope springs when left and right begin to agree on the widening scale of inequality, economic insecurity and lack of mobility, and the potential damage to all of us.
Pearlstein’s commentary makes reference not just to the officially impoverished (hovering near 10 percent in Minnesota) but to the entire “bottom half” and all “forgotten Americans.” From the other side, a recent report by the progressive group Policy Link counts the percentage of Americans who are economically insecure at a whopping one-third of our population, or “One Hundred Million and Counting.”
Common ground and common purpose on equity are within our grasp, if we can get past ideological and tribal absolutism and drive to practical solutions. And we see new hope for that early in 2019.
In a recent panel discussion hosted by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka asserted that Republicans and DFLers were in about 80 percent agreement on the challenges the state faces.
And DFL Gov. Tim Walz, the first governor from greater Minnesota since Rudy Perpich left office almost 30 year ago, has been all about a One Minnesota mindset and finding agreement. This line in his inaugural address said it best: “We must ensure equity in everything we do.”
Dane Smith is senior fellow and president emeritus of Growth & Justice.