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.
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.”
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.
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.
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…”
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.”