ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
A history lesson about the possibilities of productive legislative achievement — drawing from the landmark session of 1973 under brand new DFL legislative majorities and a DFL governor at mid-term — was offered in an article by veteran St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Bill Salisbury this week.
That 1973 session, Salisbury wrote, ”provided consumer and environmental protections, boosted women’s rights, increased educational opportunities, overhauled campaign and election laws, and streamlined state government and opened it up to the public.”
Much of that legislation passed with Republican support from forward-looking young lawmakers such as state Rep. Arne Carlson, who became governor in 1991. And it’s important to remember that in January of 1969, it was a Republican governor in the second half of his first term who was preparing a budget plan with major new increases for education and human services, for a Legislature dominated by his own party.
The need for new revenue in 1969 or 1973 was not as urgent as it is today, after more than a decade of tax-cutting and budget-cutting and disinvestment in public goods and services. But at the time, the Vietnam War, the Cold War and upheaval over civil rights had rendered the electorate even more anxious and divided—generationally, racially and ideologically—than it is today. And that 1969 governor, throughout his budget, address emphasized that federal and state revenues were too low to keep up with demographic needs, growing social unrest over racial and gender inequality, and technological change that demanded more public investment.
That governor was the underrated and often overlooked Harold LeVander, and he delivered a remarkable budget address that stated as a top priority, “first, the needs of our people.” And he laid out seven simple policy goals, according to the transcript of his budget address in the Legislative Reference Library:
LeVander made the case for increased taxes on tobacco and alcohol and for whopping increases in education and human service and health budgets. He proposed big boosts in budgeting for his Human Rights Department and for spending on the Minnesota State Arts Council. His budget, in summary, was about “improving the total quality of life for all Minnesotans.”
LeVander did not face the long-term structural shortfall that confronts DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the DFL Legislature, and LeVander did not push for higher income taxes. He warned against income tax rates that might lead to “out-migration” of talented people. But LeVander also did not apologize for Minnesota’s already high income tax rates in comparison to other states — and our highest marginal rate then was significantly higher than it is now.
In that budget address LeVander made this wise connection between taxation, good government, and general prosperity: “Historically, Minnesotans have willingly invested in their state a greater proportion of their income than do the citizens of most other states. Such courage and dedication has made our quality of life second to only one other state in the nation.” (So-called “quality of life” measures were relatively new then, and were showing Minnesota at the top of the heap.)
The Dayton administration already has a jump start on setting general and specific goals for improved quality of life in Minnesota, through an outcome-based budgeting process being implemented in state government. The Legislature should embrace and expand this concept of setting long-term goals and setting a direction and a plan toward achieving them.
Here’s a LeVander-esque set of visions and measurable goals that leaders from both parties could set for the end of the decade and beyond. This ”smart investment” agenda is drawn from a decade of our own citizen engagement and research at Growth & Justice:
Job growth and economic justice
Employment and business indicators for Minnesota are once again robust and restored to 1990s levels, outstripping most other states and leading the Midwest. Racial disparities in unemployment are disappearing, and real income is finally rising for households in the lower and middle income levels. Those at the very top no longer capture all or most of the growth in the economy.
World-class educational superiority
At least 75 percent of our young adults obtain a higher-education credential or advanced workforce training, up from an unacceptable current level of between 50 percent and 60 percent. High-quality early childhood education is fully funded and access to higher education is assured regardless of ability to pay.
Healthier people and universal health care coverage
All Minnesotans have affordable, first-rate preventive health care, total costs to business and individuals are rising less rapidly, and obesity and addiction rates are declining.
Top-notch transportation and infrastructure quality
All key bottom-line indicators for our physical infrastructure — congestion delays, road surface condition, transit usage, water and sewer quality, broadband access — are showing improvement and near the top nationally.
A cleaner economy
Minnesota stands out as the nation-leader on conversion to renewable fuels and is reversing the decline in water quality on its precious lakes and rivers.
Variations on this theme should be encouraged, but those bullet points cover the basics — or, as Independence Party candidate for governor Peter Hutchinson often said in his 2006 campaign, “the main things.” And the point is that most previous governors and Legislatures have at least tried to elevate consensus goals and outcomes, rather than getting distracted by debates about taxes and budget line items per se.
Minnesotans have long held a distinctively keen appreciation for the idea of common good, and the exalted language LeVander used in wrapping up his budget plan says it about as well as anyone ever has: “We must work together, for the great task of our generation is to fashion a society that can fill the senses with beauty, open the mind to truth and lift the spirit toward justice.”
A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, December 27, 2012.