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Tough economic times — and no state planning agency

You’d think that long-range, strategic planning would be an essential function of state government — especially in these troubled economic times.

Think again. Minnesota state government has been functioning without a planning agency since 2003, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed an executive order eliminating the agency and shuttling off the remnants to the Department of Administration.

“I feel like I am the last of the State Planning Agency in exile,” says Tom Gillaspy, head of the four-person state demographer’s office.

He resides in Administration along with procurement, building and parking services, the state mail system and the motorpool — all very strategic stuff.

Tom Gillaspy
MinnPost/Daniel Corrigan
Tom Gillaspy

Pawlenty’s executive order, issued “to improve efficiency and avoid duplication,” was but the final nail in the coffin. For two decades, the planning agency had been the target of periodic efforts by legislators of both parties to downsize and dismember the agency.

“I don’t think it ever produced anything of any intellectual depth,” says Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, a longtime member of the State Government Finance Division, which controls state agency funding. “We were better off looking to the university, the departments and special commissions for planning and policy proposals.”

Agency missed
Others see it differently, saying that the State Planning Agency was an important source of research, analysis and policy development — particularly during the administrations of Govs. Wendell Anderson and Arne Carlson. And they say it is missed today.

Ted Kolderie, a public policy expert and former executive director of the Citizens League, says: “People are going around asking, ‘What do we want to be as a state? And where is state planning? Where is state planning?’

“We’ve watched the planning function dwindle everywhere in government,” says Kolderie. “The idea of long-range, strategic planning has largely disappeared.”
Ironically, the State Planning Agency was the creation in 1965 of a Legislature controlled by rural conservatives (before legislators were elected by party label). The driving force was the late Sen. Gordon Rosenmeier, a shrewd lawyer from Little Falls and the most powerful legislator of his era.

Rosenmeier truly regarded the Senate as “the upper house” and was none too deferential to anyone, governors included. But “he really did believe in having a strong and competent executive branch,” Kolderie says.

Sen. Gordon Rosenmeier
Sen. Gordon Rosenmeier

The State Planning Agency took root during the administration of Gov. Harold LeVander. It was headed by Ray Olson, a former Bloomington city manager, who was said to be masterful in securing federal planning dollars that flowed freely in the 1960s.

Strong staffs
The agency blossomed in the Anderson administration under the late Gerald Christenson, who later served as state finance commissioner, legislative auditor and chancellor of the state community college system.

Jim Solem, who joined the agency shortly after its creation and headed its Office of Local and Urban Affairs, says Christenson put together a strong staff with expertise in human services, transportation, environment, economics and other policy areas. The agency also provided planning assistance to local and regional planning efforts.

Later, Christenson established the post of state demographer to provide the governor and Legislature with better information on population and demographic trends that would affect state revenues and the demand for state services.

“Gerry focused on what the governor’s office wanted and what he thought they needed, and kept the Legislature involved,” Solem says.

State Planning provided staff support in the development of Anderson’s 1971 school finance reform legislation, which later became known as “the Minnesota Miracle.” The agency also did considerable work on housing issues, laying the groundwork for the creation of the state Housing Finance Agency.

Working with the Legislature, Christenson pioneered a series of seminars called “Minnesota Horizons” at the start of each legislative session. The idea was to get lawmakers thinking beyond the next legislative session and the next election — about emerging issues and trends that would affect the state in the longer term.

State Planning began a gradual decline in the late 1970s, a victim of weak directors under Govs. Al Quie and Rudy Perpich as well as legislative budget cuts and downsizing efforts. Perpich also alienated lawmakers by using the agency staff to monitor legislative committee meetings and report on how they were treating his bills.

But the agency enjoyed something of a resurgence in the Carlson administration under Director Linda Kohl, a former Pioneer Press reporter and editor.

Among the agency’s most significant contributions was a 1995 report called “Within Our Means,” which identified the demographic and related forces that were driving state spending and contributing to the state’s chronic budget shortfalls.

“The gap between revenues and expenditures is not a cyclical problem that will disappear during good economic times,” the report warned, all too accurately. “It is structural and will recur, unless corrected…”

30-year vision
Under Kohl, the agency also developed “Minnesota Milestones,” a citizen-based, 30-year vision for the state’s future with 20 broad goals. It was accompanied by 79 specific indicators, which were updated annually, to measure progress toward achieving those goals.

From her perspective, Kohl says: “State Planning was the only place where people could look across state department lines and make policy recommendations to the governor. The departments were very turf-conscious, but most of the issues involved more than one agency.”

In recent years, the state Finance Department — now called Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) — has emerged as the preeminent agency that is called upon to provide some direction to state government. But MMB has been so consumed by managing through fiscal crises that it may never have the time to provide any long-term strategic thinking.

Gillaspy, the state demographer since 1979, says, “A number of legislators in both parties have said, ‘We need something like the old Planning Agency to do forward-looking, strategic planning.’ Unfortunately (from a budgetary perspective) this is not the time to create a new department or entity.”

Still, Gillaspy believes some kind of planning unit could help the governor and lawmakers address the state’s long-term fiscal challenges and chart a vision for the future.

“Instead of talking about our vision and goals and strategies for where we want to go, we’re stuck in a discussion of tactics,” he says. “It completely diverts you from the whole question of what you are trying to achieve. If we talked about vision first, I think we would might we have much more agreement.”

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Jim Roth on 09/26/2011 - 12:50 pm.

    Surprise, surprise… the state has been lacking in long-range planning since Pawlenty in his wisdom eliminated State Planning. Ms. Kohl’s and Mr. Gillaspy’s comments are well taken. Representative Kahn, as sometimes happens, is off the mark. Perhaps there were a few reports that she didn’t read, along with former Governor Pawlenty. It would be interesting to hear more from some who did read the reports like former Governor Carlson. It is also interesting to note that several reports produced during the 1990’s won national awards.

  2. Submitted by craig furguson on 09/26/2011 - 12:53 pm.

    The MN Office of Budget and Management hasn’t posted the quarterly employee numbers since early 2010 (look under Citizen Information). For a walk down memory lane, look at the MN Planning Crime information, last updated in 2000 but still online. I remember doing some research there when they were breaking it up, it looked like a disorganized ghost town. We can cut all the analysts to save money and rely on gut decisions.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 09/26/2011 - 01:22 pm.

    Of all the things that has become more “business like” about the government is its focus on short term “profits” and not long term outcomes and viability. That strategy isn’t working very well for us (one might even argue it doesn’t really work that well for business, but that is another discussion) even our “stock price” or bond rating is falling.

    Planning has gotten a bad name and strategic planning has and even worse reputation. A lot of it is deserved because it is done in a for lack of a better term half-assed way with a room of myopic managers whose vision doesn’t go beyond their spreadsheet. When they leave the room there is no thought of the strategy and no accountability for failure to commit and continue business as usual. That short term thinking leaves nothing but tactics. Which is all you see and hear in political debates.

    Mr. Gillaspy is correct the discussion should start with the goal and then methods to achieve that goal.

    Do we want all people in Minnesota to have access to health care or just some of them? To what level – the public health level – you see a doctor when your sick, you get necessary surgery, or we try to keep you alive. Then determine how you achieve that goal through a mix of insurance, charity, and subsidy.

    What recreation activities do we believe are important for the well being of the state. Stadiums, Gambling, Arts, Camping, Hiking, etc. Does the state have a role in providing them or subsidizing them? If so how should that role be paid for?

    Do we believe as a state i.e. that it is in the states interest that every child should be able to read, write, and understand math and science. How about history or civics or life skills? How does that responsibility break down between family, industry and the public sector.

    Until you get back to the basic questions of what do we want to achieve you can’t talk about goals,strategies, and tactics.

    All the rhetoric about taxes are to high, government is too big, and the private sector is the job creator are meaningless until you look at what you want to accomplish.

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/26/2011 - 02:21 pm.

    Hot steam opens up old pores…

    Is there any credibility or validity to the story that any serious planning in the Arrowhead Region in the 70’s, 80’s was actuated in a Finnish sauna on the Iron Range or an island retreat off Georgia?

    Also should respectfully note… enjoyed interesting time-line history; nice coverage.

  5. Submitted by Lauren Maker on 09/26/2011 - 03:26 pm.

    But if you have no planning, then you don’t have to look at the goals, or even the results. You can just deal with the immediate crisis, to hell with the long term implications. Easier to manipulate public reaction that way. Worked well for Timmy & the boys so far.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/26/2011 - 06:56 pm.

    I wonder how Mr. Gillaspy spends his day. Too bad the journalist couldn’t have written about what his daily calendar looks like. That would have been instructive.

  7. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/26/2011 - 08:17 pm.

    I’ve only lived in Minnesota for 24 years so I wasn’t around when a lot of these ideas were hatched. But unless I’m very mistaken, the State Planning Agency became the last resting place for the Minnesota municipal board (or commission), an agency that at the time was supposed to be the cure all for the bane of local government, i.e. annexation disputes, new city creation, and urban sprawl. Now the matter s handled by the office of administrative hearings.

    If the idea was to curb sprawl and protect rural land and the environment, I think we can all agree that in hindsight, the effort was a failure. The Builders Association, the Civil Engineers Association, the League of Minnesota Cities and similar pro-growth, pro-sprawl organizations prevailed to ensure that the driving forces behind subsidized urban and suburban sprawl were unchecked. The Environmental Quality Board, I believe also became an appendage of the State Planning Agency where it all but met its demise. After 2008 and the collapse of the housing bubble, it seems like a moot point to have a State Planning Agency. It also seems quaint to imagine that some group of bureaucrats or experts might base decisions on plans to expand roads, water and sewer lines and other public utilities based on some basis of reasonable long term need and protection of the environment rather than to meet a developer’s short term drive for profit.

  8. Submitted by jody rooney on 09/27/2011 - 12:50 am.

    Mr. Kingstad , urban sprawl is some sort of ghost that people throw around when they are trying to look sensitive. Just exactly where did you expect to put people while the metro area while it was doubling in size? Stacked like cord wood in the cities.

    The only major error I see in planning is an over dependency on buses for transit for way too long. That was a legislative and Met Council decision.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/27/2011 - 10:20 am.

    Good piece, Steven. The historical perspective is especially useful to those of us who are newbies to the state.

    Indeed, somewhere in state government, and coordinating with similar offices and / or people at the county level, there ought to be capable people thinking about the long term, what sort of state Minnesota wants to be, and how to get to that point.

    Wingers on the right will argue that planning itself is an intrusion into the “free market,” and there’s already far too much government interference in economic and personal lives already, though they don’t seem to view intruding into my bedroom or someone else’s reproductive life as a similar intrusion. Besides, planning would cost money, and potentially reduce profit margins.

    Wingers on the left will wave copies of the latest planning tome and insist that every aspect of the future, if not exactly knowable, can largely be anticipated if we but use our heads to make decisions based on the latest science and technology, in the process forgetting that humans often behave irrationally and frequently make counterproductive choices. They also too-often ignore the fact that people have to be able to make a living, and not all of us want to live in a yurt.

    My experiences as a planning commissioner elsewhere lead me to be deeply suspicious of both ends of the spectrum, and I can count on the fingers of one hand – with fingers left over – the number of real estate developers I encountered as a planning commissioner who seemed to have a functioning conscience.

    While perhaps not as hard and fast a rule as I’d like, I’m nonetheless inclined to believe that good communities (including the state as a whole in this context) don’t happen by accident. People with influence – political, financial, media, or some combination of those things – make choices, and those choices have ripples of consequence, intended and unintended, that affect their fellow-citizens, and how they live their lives. Sometimes the public has meaningful input, but often, the process, and the basic decisions involved, have already been set in motion before the public has a chance to weigh in. In large part, that seems to be because, once those basic decisions have been made, there are big bucks involved, and there’s no getting around the influence of money in this, or any, industrial society.

    The state, as well as the Twin Cities metro area, could obviously use and benefit from long-range strategic thinking, but while the Met Council apparently fills that role to some degree for the Twin Cities metro, the current economic gridlock at the state capitol suggests that there’s a huge policy vacuum at the state level. I think Gillaspy is correct in asserting that the state’s long term interests would be well-served by the creation of an agency / office / staff whose purpose was to talk (and solicit genuinely public input, from ordinary citizens as well as CEOs) about vision, goals, and strategies for achieving those things.

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