For the public good

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The faults lines illuminate as the legislative session looms. Not that these fissures ever go away. They just become accentuated as legislators prepare their return to the capitol. Recently these factions have led to dysfunction and our common good is the victim. Even conservatives like Mitt Romney gain resonance when they say politics is broken.

I agree with James Madison that factions are essential to democracy. People not only have the right but also the responsibility to zealously and passionately present their beliefs in the public forum.

I know what I’m talking about having organized a number of dramatic confrontations on the capitol steps. I once yelled through a megaphone at a certain governor to “put up or shut up,” a quote caught on radio that required some awkward explanations to my kids. I have come to learn that our greater responsibility to the common good is lost when factional fighting drowns out functional outcomes.

The legislative session is not a place to kick ass or cover ass. Politics is often referred to as a full contact sport, reduced to score keeping in the narrowest sense. No wonder Pat Kessler is featured on KFAN amid talk about the Wild and the Twins. When gotcha games overcome basic goals of government, people, most of whom will never walk the halls of the capitol, suffer the most.

We are no longer the state where our governor heralds our quality of life from the cover of Time magazine. Our public schools, once a pillar of the Minnesota Miracle, languish with a couple of dozens states now spending more per capita on education than Minnesota. The essential value of early childhood education continues to be unrecognized. Health care is out of reach for a growing number of working families. Our infrastructure crumbles. Climate change is real. An increasing number of veterans are returning from Iraq with serious mental health and drug problems. The gap between the rich and poor widens.

There’s real work to be done as legislators return on February 12th even with a revenue shortfall. Unlike any other time in history our very survival is at risk. Legislators and the governor need to remember that the object of government as defined by the state constitution is for the benefit of the people and the public good.

There’s plenty of room for debate about what constitutes the benefit of the people but leadership of both parties needs to come together away from the fray and consense upon some basic elements of the public good. Their differences will keep but they need to decide on certain fundamental goals.

The governor and legislators could focus on public education since they have been shirking their constitutional duty to establish a general and uniform system. Good schools provide the best opportunity for kids to overcome adversity. If we are to overcome the dual economy, resources need to be invested in our schools. The first session I worked was in 1969. I remember when both parties wanted to pay for public education. This can happen again.

The same goes for other factions or lobby groups as we call them. Don’t worry there will always be plenty to fight about but they can also agree to pool resources for a few common goals. The Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO have a common interest in our roads and bridges. They could agree on certain thresholds to advocate for in advance and work together for them.

And for one year let’s stop the perennial fights between anti-abortion and abortion-rights factions. For just one session- only a couple of months- perhaps MCCL and Planned Parenthood could agree to put a hold on their skirmishes and work together on a common venture. Certainly both groups have a commitment to early childhood education. Agree on a common early childhood goal and devote your common resources to passing it this year. After they accomplish that they can retreat to their respective corners and resume the fight. But, they will never see each other in the same way again.

It’s time our elected officials and the capitol crowd get to work and fix what’s broken. There will always be fractious factions and plenty of room for passion and zeal at the capitol. In fact liberty requires it. Yet, the fights should not be at the expense of the common good. Too much is at stake right now. Most of us are tired of the intramural fighting. People will support those who seek unity for the common good regardless of their party. Our lives depend on it.

Mel Duncan is the executive director of Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP), an international organization providing trained, unarmed peacekeepers to protect civilians in areas of violent conflict. He has organized at the grass roots for over 30 years on issues of peace, justice and the environment. His work includes helping to found and direct the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action (MAPA), a forerunner of Take Action Minnesota, and Advocating Change Together (ACT), a self advocacy project of people with developmental disabilities.

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