After the revolution? Recommendations for the Minnesota DFL

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You say you want a revolution? Well it was not quite that, but November 6, gave Democrats control of the Minnesota legislature and governorship for the first time since 1990. In fact they occupy all the constitutional offices. Dayton can move his agenda and the DFL can push its priorities. But less one think that it is now Christmas time for the DFL, there should be some caution in the moves that the Democrats take.

Yes, the DFL should move an agenda that is Democrat. Single-payer health insurance, legalizing single-sex marriage, and commitments to education should guide what the DFL do. But the political revolution is less than meets the eye. It is less a mandate for the DFL than it was a rejection of the Republicans. Republicans overreached. Kurt Zellers and the Republicans promised that it would simply be jobs and the economy and they failed. They failed first to get the state’s fiscal house in order. Yes Republicans claim they balanced the state budget without taxes increases but that is wrong. To “balance” the budget they borrowed approximately two billion dollars from K-12 and another $700 million from the tobacco endowment. All this was one time revenue that must be repaid. The budget deal did nothing to solve a structural deficit problem and the State walks into the 2013 with a yet to be determined real deficit of several billion dollars. Moreover, the balance they claim came with a government shutdown and a loss of the state’s triple A rating.

But beyond failing at jobs and the economy, the Republicans overreached. They debated social issues and placed a Marriage Amendment on the ballot. They sought to rig elections in the future with a voter Id amendment. They also debated amendments on abortion, right-work laws similar to those enacted in Wisconsin, and taxes. The Republicans, hungry for power, saw their legislative majorities as the opportunity to pander to every one of their constituencies and enact every crackpot idea their supporters had. They foolishly thought 2010 was a mandate when it was simply a rejection of Democrats. The Republicans sought to take over the state for their own interest, not to govern or lead it for all of us. And they paid the price on November 6. Everyone can see this except for the outgoing Republican leadership who are still in denial about the election and their bad performance.

The Democrats need to avoid the same mistake. They need to lead and govern and not pander. They too will have pent up demand for many groups wanting it to be their turn now. The first advice is that Democrats must prove that they can be trusted with the taxpayer’s money. They must show they are better at handling the state’s finances and economy than were the Republicans. Given the last biennium, this is a low bar. But this is the time for the DFL to do the budget right, make the tough choices, and really clean up the budget without any shifts or gimmicks that have been the norm for over a decade. What might this include?

The first order of business is developing a honest budget process. Repeal the foolish 2002 law that counts inflation for the purposes of revenue but not obligations. Additionally, ban shifts and other short term or one time revenue fixes. These gimmicks hide the real structural deficit in Minnesota which is probably in excess of $4 billion. Part of creating a honest budget process may go so far as completely reforming it from scratch. Change the timing when the fiscal forecasts are issued so that budget work can start sooner. Set earlier committee deadlines or fiscal targets. Follow the practice of Wisconsin and create a joint legislative committee to do the budget. Or even change the budget from even to odd years to give legislators one year to learn their job before doing the budget. Right now we have too many rookies doing a major fiscal job in ignorance.

But other budget fixes could also include creating an automatic continuing resolution that keeps the current budget in place if no agreement is reached. This is what they do in Wisconsin and it will avert future government shutdowns. But reform to the governor’s unallotment authority is also needed to prevent future power grabs as seen under Pawlenty. Fiscal reform also means paying back the money to K-12 and on the tobacco endowment. If the Democrats can do all this, they have accomplished a lot.

But all this structural reform requires real budget choices too, while at the same time advancing DFL priorities that serve the interests of Minnesota. Governor Rudy Perpich got it right when he said it wanted Minnesota to be the brainpower state. He wanted Minnesotans to be the best educated state in the country. There are powerful correlations between education and economic development. The single best investment a state can make is in education. Thus, repaying money owed to K-12 makes sense, but it is not a blank check. Minnesota has horrible racial disparities in terms of graduation and learning outcomes. The racial disparity overlaps with class and poverty. Better education is not simply about class size, it is making sure that students come to school prepared to learn. This means healthy, clothed, and well-fed. Attend to the social service side of education. Attend also to funding early-childhood education and give students the head start they need.

But do not ignore workforce training for adults. The State needs better partnerships with business and higher education and community colleges to make it affordable for people already in the workforce to get new or additional training. Here is where adjustments to the Minnesota tax code make sense.

Minnesota also has an aging infrastructure. We already wasted money on a Vikings stadium that could have been better spent on roads and bridges. Do bonding to alleviate the increased congestion in the Twin Cities making commutes increasingly time consuming and commerce difficult. But bonding to improve the internet infrastructure in greater Minnesota is also essential. Level the playing field between brick businesses in Minnesota and Internet businesses by passing the Amazon.com bill that was debated last session.

What else should the DFL consider? It is inevitable that the wealth should pay more in taxes to fund the state. There is little empirical evidence that such taxes will hurt or deter job growth, and a lot of evidence that they are in the best position to help foot the bill for many amenities from which they benefit. The DFL should also move forward to fully implement the Affordable Care Act and perhaps even other reforms to provide more health care for all in Minnesota.

The advice for Democrats is thus simple: Do not confuse Republican rejection with Democrat mandate. Don’t overreach, attend to the economy and budget first, remember your principles, and use them to build a foundation for other changes once broad support has emerged.

Note: This blog originally appeared in Politics in Minnesota on November 15, 2012. Please consider subscribing to that publication for news on state politics.