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Recent state successes involved collaborations, something leaders should build upon in 2014

MinnPost photo by James Nord
Gov. Mark Dayton's "unsession" will more likely succeed in getting it right if he wisely reaches out to private and nonprofit leaders who have led the way on innovation and in bringing new technologies to beneficiary and customer services.

As we settle into a new year, looking backwards may help bring perspective to the challenges of tomorrow. In that spirit, 2013 brought many achievements with important benchmarks reached and moments of courage and foresight worth noting.

Tim Penny
Tim Penny

Among those achievements, data from the Minnesota Department of Education now show that the percentage of students ready for kindergarten when they start school is at 72 percent. It was just a few years ago that fewer than half of Minnesota’s children starting kindergarten met this benchmark.

Assuring that all kids are ready for success when they start school is one of the most effective long-term investments Minnesota can make. The work of former Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank Research Director Art Rolnick to quantify the value of early childhood education became the rallying point for private-public action. A CEO-led initiative, the work of diverse community leaders – especially former state legislators (one a Republican and one a Democrat) Duane Benson and Todd Otis – led to smart legislation and a private-public success story.

Tom Horner
MinnPost/Jana Freiband
Tom Horner

Another Minnesota success story in 2013, one that pairs good public policy and innovative private leadership, involves stemming the increase in health-care costs. After double-digit annual increases for much of the last two decades, spending on health care rose only 2 percent in the most recent period studied. Certainly, some of the slowdown is due to the Great Recession. A large share of the cost slowdown, though, is tied to smart public policies and effective private sector action.

Tobacco use is way down

Consider tobacco use. Research sponsored by the nonprofit tobacco cessation organization ClearWay Minnesota found that “tax increases, smoke-free policies, media campaigns, youth access laws and cessation treatment created a 29 percent drop in smoking in Minnesota between 1993 and 2011.”

The impact on health costs is enormous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that “if nobody smoked, one of every three cancer deaths in the United States would not happen.” According to CDC, the risk of stroke and coronary heart disease is up to four times higher for smokers. In addition, research at Mayo Clinic showed that smoke-free workplaces significantly reduced heart attacks.

The evidence of Minnesota’s health innovation and leadership abounds. According to the federal government, Minnesota’s health-insurance exchange has the lowest health-insurance premiums of any exchange in the country. Hospitals, clinics and other health providers in Minnesota increasingly are focused on keeping people healthy rather than waiting to treat them when they are sick. Employers are promoting wellness programs and helping their workers be better consumers of health care.

Higher education is another field with good news in 2013. The University of Minnesota froze tuition for Minnesota residents this year. For students from households with annual incomes of $75,000, the University of Minnesota now is the most affordable college in the state, public or private. Even more reason to celebrate is the dramatic increase in graduation rates at the U of M. The percentage of students graduating in four years has nearly quadrupled in the last 20 years.

Also cause for celebration is the fact that Minnesota’s for-profit universities continue to innovate. Minnesota-based Capella University, for example, is offering a path for students to earn undergraduate and graduate credits for academic subjects in which they can demonstrate proficiency. The program could cut the cost and time of an MBA program by half.

Collaboration has helped

It is no coincidence that much of our recent success and progress in these two arenas – education and health care – have been achieved by notable collaboration between the public and private sectors. That is a model to be emulated as we look ahead to the policy challenges before us.

  • Gov. Mark Dayton is calling the upcoming legislative session the “un-session.” He is promising to make reform and innovation the hallmarks of state government. He is focusing his administration on streamlining government and making it easier for businesses and individuals to interact with public agencies. It’s a worthy effort, even if the outcomes remain uncertain. He will more likely succeed in getting it right if he wisely reaches out to private and nonprofit leaders who have led the way on innovation and in bringing new technologies to beneficiary and customer services. He will also do well to engage key Republican allies in this effort. Reducing costs while improving outcomes is certainly a goal that both parties should share.
  • MNsure, the state’s piece of the Affordable Care Act, has, like the federal exchange, had its challenges. Clearly, there are many Republican legislators who would like this program to go away. But, so long as President Barack Obama is in the White House (and probably beyond), it will remain the law of the land. For the sake of all Minnesotans – especially those who will benefit from finally having access to health insurance – MNsure needs to work and work well. Here again, the governor needs to tap private-sector expertise – and he needs to find Republican support for the necessary refinements of this program.
  • Managing the projected budget surplus is perhaps the most significant challenge of the upcoming session. There will be a temptation to overpromise and overspend. Repaying the school shift is top of the agenda — and it is the right thing to do. Adding dollars to the budget reserve is also critically important – as it will provide a cushion when the next inevitable downturn occurs. On this, Dayton will likely find more Republican support than Democrat. But the governor should also listen to the private sector about the need to repeal unfair, and anti-competitive, business-to-business taxes. If we want Minnesota’s economy to remain strong – which in turn produces stronger state revenues – focusing part of our projected surplus on business-friendly tax policy can pay dividends well into the future.
  • Because it is an election year, 2014 will bring with it more partisan wrangling and policy disappointments. For now, though, here’s a toast to some of the good news stories of 2013 and a call to our state’s leaders to create a few good news stories for 2014.

Tim Penny is president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and a former member of Congress. Tom Horner is a public affairs/public relations consultant and was the Independence Party candidate for governor in 2010.

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