Minnesotans have traditionally seen their quality of life as something uniquely special to our state. An iconic Hamm’s beer commercial showed waterfalls and lovable bears dancing to “from the land of sky blue waters.”
Minnesota was the land where business, government, academia, religion, nonprofits and the media worked together to improve the quality of life for all. The focus of our leadership centered on “community” and “we.” The goal was always to be the best: the best in health care, the best in educational opportunities, the best in the arts, the best in protecting the great outdoors for all, the best in economic opportunities. Always, the best.
Two recent stories are but the latest examples of our lax attention to those things that make Minnesota special. The first story detailed the Legislature’s intent to reduce spending on state parks at a time when public need is significantly growing. Although Gov. Mark Dayton has budgeted an $8 million increase, the expected result is likely a compromise that will leave the park system underfunded thereby necessitating reductions in service. The second story dealt with the low water levels of White Bear Lake and our failure to properly develop and fund a comprehensive water management policy. Somewhere the Hamm’s bear is crying.
How about smarter spending?
Proposed federal budget cuts will threaten our vibrant arts community and scientific research. Additionally, cuts to health care and transportation will further strain state and local budgets. The answer is not always more taxes. How about smarter spending?
Undoubtedly, the least intelligent spending in recent decades involves the outsized public share of the $1.1 billion Vikings stadium. Barron’s magazine rated it the third worst sports deal in history. Remarkably the “deal” keeps getting even worse. We ought not to fool ourselves — we are talking real money!
The following facts are beyond dispute:
- The state and city of Minneapolis floated $498 million in bonds for the building of the stadium.
- The state approved a law limiting taxpayer contributions to that $498 million. No additional dollars from government were to be spent.
- In clear violation of that legal limit, the Metropolitan Council and the City of Minneapolis continue to pour more public monies into the project.
- Vikings’ owner, Zygi Wilf, has successfully transferred his financial obligations under the stadium bill to provide parking and suitable open space to Minneapolis taxpayers. We outlined our concerns in a letter hand delivered to the mayor and City Council during the budget process on Dec. 7 (Carlson/Ostrow letter). None of our concerns has been addressed.
- Virtually every penny of revenue generated by the stadium will either go directly to Wilf or toward even more stadium improvements that will serve only the interests of Viking ownership. This includes over $6 million per year generated by non-Viking events.
- These additional subsidies to the Vikings have occurred without elected officials holding any public hearings and often no real public disclosure.
The tragedy here is the ease with which rules and laws can be pushed aside when powerful interests and their army of lobbyists want the public’s money. But when quality-of-life issues like the arts, parks, water quality or homelessness arise they must fight for the crumbs.
We must insist on a new agenda
Minnesotans deserve better governance. However, that will not come about simply because we wish it. Our outrage must be transformed into active participation. We must write letters to the editor, our Legislature, the governor, attorney general, and state auditor. We must insist on a new agenda, and we must have new leaders. Our indifference is our worst enemy.
We would propose the following agenda to preserve our quality of life:
- Let’s spend wisely: The creation of a new LEAP (Loaned Executive Program) for both the state and the City of Minneapolis. The first LEAP program was one of Gov. Wendell Anderson’s major accomplishments. A similar program was used in Minneapolis a decade ago. These programs involved using the expertise of business executives to improve the cost effectiveness and understandability of operations. Government that is not subject to the pressures of competition must periodically be challenged to innovate and increase cost effectiveness.
- Support small business development: Create a small business commission for the purpose of reviewing the impact of governmental regulation on the ability of a small enterprise to survive. The purpose is not to disassemble necessary and protective laws but rather to make certain we are not placing unnecessary burdens on those struggling to grow. Their success is our success.
- Re-create the State Planning Agency: We need a defined set of goals and objectives to plan our way into the future. This agency should have the ability to prepare state and local governments for the accelerating changes in our workforce, our economy, and our environment.
- Restore long-term financial planning: While a six-year time frame may be a stretch for some lawmakers, there is a need for defined guidelines in order to avoid the cycles of feast and famine. Demographic changes and federal budget cuts make financial planning more critical than ever.
- Best practices for public-private partnerships: When critical to the state’s quality of life, the public sector needs to partner with the private sector. We must be as smart about our money as the private business attempts to be with its money. At a minimum, this must include the following:
- Development of a cost-benefit analysis to determine the public gain vs. the public cost.
- The public’s negotiating team should at a minimum have talent and experience comparable to those representing team owners.
- A full vetting of all private business partners comparable to a bank examination and a business plan that also covers issues of cost sharing and profit sharing.
- Taxpayers should be treated as shareholders and, as such, permitted to attend annual meetings where performance and public concerns are reviewed.
- Issues of cost incurred by taxpayers attending sporting events should be addressed. Taxpayers who pay for facilities should not be priced out for being a fan.
- All rules of openness in government and full transparency relative to review of financial disclosures and expenditures must be followed.
How to regain public trust on the stadium
Specific to the stadium project, the following actions are critical to regain the public’s trust:
- A full-blown compliance audit of the entire stadium project by the legislative auditor.
- A legal review by the state’s atorney general with a focus on the processes used by government entities to circumvent the legal spending limits.
- Requiring the MSFA to verify annually that spending limits are being honored and that the team’s legal responsibilities are being enforced.
- An annual recommendation followed by a public hearing as to the best use of public revenues generated by non-Vikings events to include reimbursement of public safety and infrastructure costs, surrounding park and other improvements or other public needs.
We believe that with intelligence and prudence we can enhance the quality of life for all Minnesotans. However, our active involvement is key.
Arne Carlson is a former governor of Minnesota (1991-1999). Paul Ostrow is a former president of Minneapolis City Council.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)