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Legislators seek more accountability — and Minnesota yawns

The recent partisan battles over transportation have not exactly established a spirit of cooperation toward resolving a looming state budget deficit. And the grim task of patching up a billion-dollar shortfall is unlikely to inspire much long-term, visionary thinking.

So maybe it’s too much to expect the government accountability principles proposed March 4 by DFL legislative leaders will provide a badly needed basis for agreement about how to manage state government’s size, cost and effectiveness.

(In fact, their announcement, which included supporting bills, was met with a yawn. If you can find another mention of their press conference and bills, your research skills are better than mine.)

Still, offering their principles and proposals under the accountability umbrella is a good first step toward ensuring we have a state government that spends money wisely, delivers services effectively and demands value for the investments it makes.

State’s skirmishes haven’t helped
This decade’s seesaw skirmishes between taxing and spending have not improved Minnesota’s economy, stabilized funding for roads and schools, increased tax fairness or heightened the public’s trust in state government.

Focusing on the inputs of taxes and spending doesn’t make government more effective and accountable. For that, we need more agreement about the outcomes we expect over the long haul and the principles we’ll follow to get there.

So what’s stopping us?

The all-or-nothing frame of tax-and-spend makes it hard for one side to hear the other’s legitimate points. Whenever conservatives say we have to prioritize spending, progressives hear “drown government in the bathtub.” When progressives say the state isn’t meeting its obligations to the future, conservatives hear “put spending on autopilot and raise taxes.”

It’s also not easy to translate broad principles into specific legislation. The public is not clamoring for increased accountability — at least in terms of detailed policy — and agencies and legislators are going to place a low priority on crafting measures that might hold their own feet to the fire.

Meaty, if not all-encompassing
We should also note what’s not yet called for here —for example, reworking public employment agreements to encourage accountability and empower innovation. Still, there’s much meat in the first round:

Straight talk and open books. Accountability begins with accurate information and honest assessment of how government is performing. The power of such straight talk is already embodied in institutions like the Legislative Auditor’s Office, but the goal ought to be government that makes such disclosure a daily routine — and makes it more accessible to the public.

Honest accounting and realistic budgeting. Responsible budget practices, asset stewardship and accurate cost projections are the basis for reliable services and more stable revenue demands. The proposals include some sound fiscal practices, including treating inflation in expense and income forecasts the same and maintaining adequate budget reserves. The State Budget Trends Study Commission will have more good recommendations in this area.

Cut bureaucracy and reward innovation. This principle should resonate with the GOP legislators. Government must eliminate barriers and create incentives to improve its efficiency and effectiveness. The governor has championed a “Drive for Excellence” initiative that adopts ideas of business enterprise transformation to eliminate duplication and overlap among departments, streamline operational processes and cut red tape. That’s one way to reduce costs while improving services, but there’s lots of room for more ideas.

Accountability for results. An election is supposed to be government’s instrument of accountability, but it’s a very blunt one, since public services are actually delivered by agencies, school districts and private contractors. By more rigorously defining policy intent, specifying expected outcomes and public benefit, and linking results to long-term indicators, legislators and administrators have better ways to judge whether initiatives are working — and whether they should be revised or eliminated.

Without this clear definition of the results we expect, however, accountability remains an aspiration. Growth & Justice looks forward to working with the legislature to help flesh out this principle, which is closely linked with the next one.

Long-term outlook and clear priorities. Minnesota once had an exemplary way of setting its course and measuring its progress, initiated during the Carlson administration. Called Minnesota Milestones, it reported on 70 progress indicators to determine whether the state was achieving 19 publicly determined goals.

After more than a decade, it was cut the last time Minnesota faced a big revenue shortfall.

The DFL leadership is proposing an innovative way to reinvigorate Minnesota Milestones through a public-private partnership. Let’s hope a Republican-DFL consensus approves it.

By themselves, this session’s first accountability bills can’t solve the budget problems, but they should not be simply brushed aside for more urgent discussions. If the Governor and Legislature want harness the total cost of government while ensuring future competitiveness and prosperity, it’s past time to move toward these higher principles — and away from the same old choices of cut or spend.

Charlie Quimby is a communications fellow with Growth & Justice, a progressive economic think tank in Minnesota. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

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