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Show us the vision — please

Date Published: 07/07/2010

Author: Dane Smith, President


Let’s seek long-term goals, and measurable outcomes, from gubernatorial candidates

Minnesota news media and candidates alike this summer seem to be fixated, understandably, on the details of balancing a lollapalooza of a projected budget shortfall in 2011.

But for our gubernatorial candidates in particular, emergency management should not be the only thing, or even the main thing. Leadership at this level should be all about painting a long-term vision, setting goals and implementing workable means toward those ends.

Our world is complicated and state government plays a complex role, but this goal-setting work is not that hard or mysterious. The things that individuals, families, businesses and communities want for themselves, and others, are universal, timeless and mostly agreed upon.

But the last decade seems to have been driven by a narrow focus on becoming more average, like other states, in taxes and spending. We just haven’t talked much about our over-arching goals in a decade during which “no new taxes,” disinvesting in public enterprise and muddling through bridge collapses and economic downturns served as our game plan. The Minnesota Planning Agency, which in the ‘70s and as late as the 1990s was a cabinet-level function, doesn’t even exist anymore.

For an era of renewal, here’s a set of visions and measurable goals that prospective governors might set for the end of the decade, “smart investment” ideas drawn from almost eight years of our own citizen engagement and research at Growth & Justice:

•         Job growth. Employment and business indicators for Minnesota are once again robust and restored to 1990s levels, outstripping most other states and leading the Midwest.
•         Economic justice. Real income is rising finally for households in the bottom and middle-income levels and 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 have some sort of higher-education credential, up from an unacceptable current level of about 50 percent.
•         Transportation and infrastructure quality. All key bottom-line indicators on our physical infrastructure – congestion delays, road surface condition, transit usage, water and sewer quality, broadband access – are showing improvement.
•         A cleaner economy. Minnesota stands out as the nation-leader on conversion to renewable fuels and is reversing the frightening declines in water quality on its precious lakes and rivers.
•         Healthier people and universal coverage. All Minnesotans have affordable access to first-rate preventive health care, and obesity and addiction rates are declining.

Variations on this theme should be encouraged but those bullet points cover the basics, or as Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson often said in his 2006 campaign, “the main things.” Other main things could include a top-to-bottom redesign and overhaul of how state and local governments provide services and collect taxes, with a goal of budgeting for outcomes and better results for dollars spent.

Previous governors in all major political parties have at least tried to elevate this “vision thing.” And most governors held to a core progressive Minnesota value – that government has an obligation to help build a better and fairer society. Former governors were not fundamentally anti-government although most were fiscally conservative.

Gov. Rudy Perpich, during the 1980s, was a classic dreamer and schemer and planner, focusing on “jobs, jobs, jobs,” improving a beleaguered rural economy, and establishing Minnesota’s status as the Brainpower State. He actually set a goal of a 98 percent high-school graduation rate by the year 1998 (incredibly, we’ve slid backwards on that measurement since the late 1980s).

Gov. Arne Carlson, despite being elected almost by surprise in 1990, arrived in January for his inauguration week with an admirable vision for an administration that would be ruled by “five Es” – excellence, education, ethics, environment and economics. And then he went further, consulting Minnesotans at the grassroots level across the state, with an ambitious campaign to develop a set of “Minnesota Milestones,” a comprehensive list of long-range goals and measurable outcomes for the state. Renovating those milestones would be a great initiative for a new governor.

Gov. Jesse Ventura was hardly a textbook public administrator or planner and he also arrived as a complete surprise, but within a few months, he had his staff working on a “Big Plan” that was serviceable and incorporated the basic principles and main things.

There is an increasingly loud minority libertarian view, held by a small percentage of voters, to the effect that almost any governmental planning, even such basics as managing growth in a densely populated metropolitan area, is akin to Marxism. Some in this camp actually argue that our government should provide armies and police protection and little else beyond protection of private property.

Fortunately, most Minnesotans see a broader role for our governments as an instrument of our togetherness and our aspirations for our common good. And for the “originalists” out there, it’s spelled out in the very first words of the Minnesota constitution:

“Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people, in whom all political power is inherent, together with the right to alter, modify or reform government whenever required by the public good.”


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, July 8, 2010

Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues. He also spent 30 years as a writer for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, where he delved into state, local and federal governments and politics.

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