Minnesota’s reputation needs legislative help

/ 2 April 2013 / eunice

Derek Larson, St. Cloud Times Writers Group, April 2, 2013 – Each month, the Gallup organization surveys a broad sample of Americans on a range of issues including physical and emotional health, life satisfaction, work satisfaction and a quality-of-life catchall labeled “access.” The results are reported on a state-by-state basis, with Minnesota joining Hawaii, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont in the top five in 2012.

A major factor keeping Minnesota near the top of the list is our tradition of investing in our citizens and infrastructure, but we have failed to honor that tradition in recent years. Minnesota’s legislators in the next two months must get busy restoring that tradition.

‘Miracle’ time

The Gallup data can be pared down to a few basic points of evaluation: how well citizen’s lives fit their expectations, their state of emotional being, their physical health, their behavioral choices, their job satisfaction, and their access to adequate food, shelter and health care. These might collectively be called qualify of life indicators, or in shorthand what former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall once called “livability.”

The more livable a state is, the higher these indicators are ranked by residents. They are happier, healthier and more productive. Businesses and investors are attracted to the state not only because its workers are well educated and productive, but because their employees are happy and healthy. Even the natural environment fares better in a more livable state, for its residents understand that health and productivity are in part derived from natural resources.

Minnesota coasted off the momentum built by the “Minnesota Miracle” tax reform of the 1970s longer than was reasonable, well into the 1990s, then went from foot-dragging to applying the brakes under Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s leadership. The Legislature now faces a range of vexing problems spanning from special education funding to road maintenance.

Taken together, they are daunting enough to beg for another bold “miracle,” but sadly the past several legislatures relied primarily on smoke and mirrors to provide only the illusion of action. Their failures compounded the situation by passing the buck and letting the problems fester into even more expensive crises. The time for such political games has ended. We must demand real solutions in the second half of this legislative session if we hope to maintain Minnesota’s reputation as a good place to live, work, invest and raise children.

What we want

Minnesota’s livability is a product of many things, but ranked high among them are the returns on investments made in sound schools, solid infrastructure, good government, a clean environment and a social safety net that provides a minimum standard of basic necessities for all residents. When any of these things erode, the whole becomes compromised; when they all erode simultaneously, as they have in recent years, the whole is threatened.

One need only look next door to Wisconsin to see this in effect, where Gov. Scott Walker’s tax-cut driven austerity policies have taken the state to No. 44 in job creation and No. 6 in private-sector wage declines since the recession. This is not the future we want for Minnesota.

While the specific solutions to our collective problems will no doubt be complex, the prescription for achieving them has not changed in decades.

The roots of the 1971 Minnesota Miracle were in the shared goals of moderate Republicans who worked with their DFL counterparts to devise a way out of the state’s fiscal trap, reducing property taxes while ensuring schools and local governments had adequate funding for the future. Time has worn that particular solution, but the same approach offers perhaps our best hope going forward: thoughtful compromise brokered by moderates, rather than noisy posturing by extremists.

As Oregon’s McCall, himself a liberal Republican, said just two years after the miracle passed the Minnesota Legislature in 1971, “Quality of life is the sum total of the fairness of our tax structure; the caliber of our homes; the cleanliness of our air and water; and the provision of affirmative assistance to those who cannot assist themselves.” Legislators would do well to keep his philosophy in mind as they grapple with decisions critical to the future of our state.

This is the opinion of Derek Larson, who teaches history and environmental studies at The College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. He welcomes your comments at twg@anderson-larson.net. His column is published the first Wednesday of the month.