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Reaching for brass rings, getting down to brass tacks

Date Published: 01/10/2013

Author: Dane Smith

ST PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT

Whether to strive for a monumentally historic session or simply a politically safe product — whether to reach for brass rings or get down to a few brass tacks — is the big strategic choice facing Gov. Dayton and the 2013 Legislature.

In my last Capitol Report column, I offered some cheap advice, based on 40 years of Legislature-watching, urging that long-term goals (brass rings) be established for the state’s public investments and that we focus on modest movement in 2013 toward those outcomes. I offered Republican Gov. Harold LeVander’s budget address in 1969 as an example of prudent goal-setting and prioritizing.

As legislators settle in to their offices and committee schedules this week, here are a few of the most obvious new measures (brass tacks), aimed at business growth and economic fairness, that members of both the DFL majorities and Republican minorities could point to with satisfaction as they prepare for re-election in 2014.

Early education, workforce readiness and gap-closing. Republican members are already calling for restoration of the funds borrowed from school districts to balance previous budget shortfalls, so the consensus on a need for more dollars has been firmly established. A Department of Education task force has called for changes in the school formula that would equalize a growing disparity in district funding, necessitating at least several hundred million dollars per year more for K-12 investment. Meanwhile, a broad coalition of groups, including business leaders, are pushing the “MinneMinds” initiative for a historic increase in funding for high-quality early childhood education, a crucial ingredient in closing the achievement and attainment gap for children of color and from low-income families. Consensus also is emerging on redesigning higher education systems and programs to better prepare young adults for today’s workforce needs, and the Legislature should begin implementing and funding those changes.

Public works and transportation. Broad bipartisan support already exists for transportation and public works investment, which are among the most obvious ways that government benefits business. A task force convened by Gov. Dayton has recommended $20 billion in revenue increases over the next 20 years for statewide transportation and transit investments. Business support is strong for building out the Twin Cities metro area light rail system. And although Dayton himself lately has been less than enthusiastic about a gas tax increase, plenty of other revenue-raising mechanisms present themselves, including congestion pricing and local sales taxes. A recent release from the governor’s office also notes that some $25 million is needed to restore the state airports and fire safety funds. Local businesses typically support local public works projects financed by the Legislature’s annual bonding bills, and those construction projects create good private-sector jobs.

Health care access for all, while reducing costs for business and families. State leaders in the executive and legislative branch are well on their way to building one of the nation’s better health care exchange models, to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act. The Minnesota Legislature needs to approve a first-class exchange, expand Medicare eligibility, consider a state “Basic Health Plan,” and move toward universal coverage.

A revenue-positive tax overhaul. This is listed last because it is not the most important item on the list; it is the means to the ends above. The official “price of government” in Minnesota went down significantly and stayed down during the previous decade of austerity and cuts-only budgets. The smaller government experiment was not a smashing success — and the state actually outperformed other states economically when its public investment was greater. Meanwhile, our tax system has grown more regressive, with those at the top paying a smaller percentage in state-and-local taxes than those in the middle and bottom. Gov. Dayton’s proposed budget will be accompanied by perhaps the most extensive overhaul of the state’s tax system since the mid 1980s. His proposal likely will raise more revenue, broaden the sales tax base, restore the previously higher income tax rates on those who are now taking a larger share of income and wealth than at any time since the Great Depression, and it could even include some modest rate reductions for corporate and business taxes. The governor’s tax overhaul proposal, to the extent it accomplishes those goals, can be improved upon, but it should be implemented.

Whether these brass tacks in the end come to be considered brass rings will be for history to decide. Previous history-making Legislatures, like the conservative majorities in 1971 that produced the “Minnesota Miracle” of more equitable education investment and revenue increases, did not fully understand the legacy of their good work until later.

House Speaker Paul Thissen set the right tone in a recent Capitol Report Q&A piece, when he urged his House members to pick a few outcomes and priorities, and advised against “hearing every bill” introduced. His colleague, Rep. Ryan Winkler, chairman of the new House Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs, outlined a cogent blueprint for broader prosperity in a recent Star Tribune article, with a strong focus on innovation and education.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk in the Q&A put it just right when he emphasized the importance of leading with the ends, rather than the means: “If you’re going to raise new revenue, people want to know that it goes to something important. And if it does, I don’t think voters will take it out on you at the ballot box. Minnesotans understand that we need to invest in our state and our infrastructure.”

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A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, January 10, 2013.


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