I applaud MinnPost’s continued efforts to dig into the policy particulars of our three main gubernatorial candidates. Tom Horner has been especially candid regarding his economic proposals, while Mark Dayton and (to a greater extent) Tom Emmer have been more reticent to lay it all out there.
Honestly, though, what interests me most about this race is already in plain view. It has less to do with any one specific policy — or the personalities of the combatants — than with what this election says about Minnesota’s larger ethos and trajectory. The devil may be in the details, but if ever there were a big-picture election in Minnesota, this is it.
It is no secret that Minnesota is facing a $5-7 billion shortfall in the next biennium. Though it is fair to blame our outgoing governor (as the Minnesota Constitution provides our exec with hefty powers), both branches of government (and both parties) must accept responsibility for failing to defuse this ticking fiscal time bomb. Sadly, we’ve been co-opted into a national atmosphere that equates healthy compromise with cowardice and surrender.
So here we are. Minnesota faces a severe shortfall in funding the many public services we rely on (education, health care, roads, police and fire departments). While it may seem this looming crisis will hamstring a first-term governor, I suspect the opposite will be true. It will empower him to chart a new course for the state.
A crisis, an opportunity
Policy practitioners, academics, wonks and the like refer to this as the emergence of a policy window — a critical moment when acute crisis creates opportunity for vast policy change.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq would have been politically untenable without the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, just as FDR would have been unable to enact Social Security (and other New Deal programs) without the specter of the Great Depression. We humans often fail to make moderate adjustments to mitigate emerging problems but accept dramatic change in response to acute crisis. For our next governor, “The Great Recession” and the interconnected state budget crisis present both challenges and opportunities.
Since World War II, Minnesota has been consistently (and fairly) characterized as a higher tax/higher service state. We historically look out for one another through healthy public institutions, functional public transportation/infrastructure, ample social services, relatively honest government, and businesses that value well-educated, innovative workers. Throughout the postwar years, some variant of this commitment was shared across party lines. The debate was about how government should help … not if it should.
This year’s gubernatorial election marks a departure from this distinctly Minnesotan political ethos. Sure, Dayton seems to be making a rather traditional argument for a progressive, higher service/higher tax state, and Horner emphasizes a renewed commitment to education while cutting other areas. Yet, for the first time in postwar history, we see strong sentiment for a truly low tax/minimal service state.
A broader anti-Washington mood
Clearly this is driven by a broader anti-Washington mood, epitomized by the Tea Party, personified in Tom Emmer, and illustrated by GOP billboards (“Don’t lose another job to South Dakota”) suggesting that Minnesotans would be better served if only we mirrored our western neighbor’s policies. South Dakota has no corporate income tax whatsoever.
Let’s set aside the unambiguous fact that South Dakota can only dream of the business assets of Minnesota (Minnesota has 21 Fortune 500 companies, South Dakota zip). Also, MinnPost’s recent analysis suggests that the tax burden placed on Minnesota businesses is not exactly onerous.
At the end of the day, Minnesotans must accept a mathematical reality: There is a sharp correlation between investment and outcome. This applies to the workplace, our families, our churches, and, yes, our state and its institutions. Low tax/high service states do not exist. Billions will not be saved from trimming the fat. These resources will only materialize by cutting services, raising revenue, or passing costs of services to other levels of government (or some combination thereof).
As we continue to use MinnPost and other reputable data-driven sources to explore policy details, let us not lose sight of the broader narrative of this important gubernatorial race. This election may end up saying more about who we are as Minnesotans than any in generations.
Zack Sullivan, Minneapolis, serves as political science faculty at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights.