Straight talk: This might hurt a bit

/ 13 January 2013 / eunice

Commentary, Lori Studevant, Star Tribune, January 13, 2013 – For the foreseeable future, the key to successful state political leadership lies in knowing how to “disappoint people at a rate they can stand.”

That’s what Ronald Heifetz, founder of Harvard’s esteemed Center for Public Leadership, told Minnesota legislators at their biennial orientation retreat last Wednesday at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Dispensing disappointment likely isn’t what newly minted legislators thought they’d just won an election to do.

But it’s a pretty cogent summary of the short- and mid-term reality for governments in these 50 states — with the possible exception of oil-rich, population-sparse North Dakota, but certainly including its neighbor to the east.

Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, elucidated: States can expect scarce resources “for at least the next several years” due to the dual hex of a slow-growing economy and reduced federal aid to the states.

The Great Recession officially ended four years ago. But like most states, Minnesota is still “recovering,” he said. It hasn’t “recovered.” Adjust for inflation, and state tax collections still lag 7 percent below their fiscal 2008 level.

Minnesota isn’t as dependent on federal outlays as most other states, Pattison said. Nevertheless, a scary 27.6 percent of state spending comes from Washington.

“I recommend that you pay attention to the feds,” Pattison deadpanned.

He also urged beefing up reserve funds, eschewing one-time fiscal gimmicks and using one-time money for one-time costs only. In other words: Don’t repeat what you did in 2009-2012.

Following that advice means budgeting the painful way, by reducing services, raising taxes or both. That’s bound to lead to disappointment among a sizable share of the electorate — the ones who hold that being a citizen is akin to being a customer, forever entitled to “expect more, pay less” for government.

That mind-set is the enemy of problem-solving and political survival over the long haul, leadership guru Heifetz explained. The problems states face today can’t be solved with legislation alone. Closing the achievement gap requires better parenting. Reducing health care costs requires healthier behavior. A better-educated workforce requires harder-working students.

Stabilizing the state budget can’t be done by raising taxes on only a handful of top earners, or by cutting waste, fraud and abuse. It will require “citizen participation.” (That’s my latest euphemism for “tax increase.”)

“The tough questions aren’t amenable simply to brilliant policy design,” Heifetz said. “There is no solution if the people don’t solve the problem.”

That means there’s no long-term job security for politicians unless they can get citizens into the problem-solving act. The paradox is that doing so requires a confession that politicians alone can’t keep the campaign promises they made, implicitly or explicitly, to fix what ails the state. And “if you try to disappoint (constituents) all at once, they will throw you out,” Heifetz said. Begin now, he said, and proceed slowly, with a pace of change that the public can digest.

One day after Heifetz’s leadership seminar, I scanned the new session’s first bill introductions to see whether any reflected Heifetz’s advice.

Let’s see: There were minimum-wage-increase bills in both bodies. I suppose that would disappoint stingy employers, but it would make a lot of workers happy. There was prompt payback of the state’s debt to schools in the House; state funding for all-day kindergarten in the Senate; richer property tax relief for low-income homeowners and renters in the House, and more money for cities to use to lure new businesses.

If that’s a start on dispensing disappointment, the pace is imperceptibly slow.

The Legislature’s new DFL leaders have been talking a lot about honest budgeting, something they say the state hasn’t seen for a decade.

Honest budgeting starts with honest talk. If legislators mean what they say, they won’t follow the old pandering scripts this year. They won’t dodge questions about their intentions. They’ll explain early and often why they believe they must change state policy. They’ll invite Minnesotans to do more and give more for themselves and each other — not just in tax dollars, but in time, talent and a sense of mutual responsibility.

It’s turned out that by trying to spare the citizenry from problems through “no new taxes” pledges and budgeting gimmicks, previous Legislatures have done a pretty good job of disappointing Minnesotans. If this year, legislators told Minnesotans, “You are part of the problem, and you must be part of the solution,” would the disappointment be any worse?