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Infrastructure investments should include state government

Republican state senators’ “belt tightening” proposal will further erode Minnesota’s government infrastructure and perpetuate the very problems they pretend to express concern over.

Minnesota State Capitol
Minnesota State Capitol
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The new rage is to say government is the cause of all our problems and if only we had no government, we’d have no problems. I can tell you that contradicts evidence, history and common sense.” — President Bill Clinton

Proposals for infrastructure spending have taken center stage. Gov. Tim Walz has proposed $518 million for infrastructure improvements and President Joe Biden is proposing trillions of dollars in expenditures to “build back better.” While Biden’s proposal expands on traditional definitions of infrastructure, the Walz proposal is largely directed at traditional infrastructure needs – roads, bridges, buildings and water treatment facilities. However, at a time when it needs sprucing up, the “infrastructure” of state government is now threatened with further deterioration.

In response to Walz’s budget proposal, Minnesota Senate Republicans unveiled their own proposal. In releasing the proposal, Republican Sen. Julie Rosen proclaimed, “We are not going to be continuing to grow government.” In fact, the Republican proposal includes a 5% reduction in “government administrative costs.” The Republican Senate Caucus website includes the exclamation, “We are going to ask the government to tighten its belt” and then touts the tired, divisive rhetorical battle cry against “bureaucrats” implying that committing waste is written into a public employee’s job description.

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State government needs infusion, not reduction

This “play to the base” policy proposal by the Republican senators will lead to further decay of state governance. Whether outsourced or through internal expansion, state government needs an infusion of resources, not a reduction.

Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) issues dozens of financial and programmatic reports annually and makes hundreds of recommendations to improve state government. OLA kicks the tires of state agencies. All too frequently, the OLA cites internal control failures, poor contracting practices and missteps resulting in taxpayer waste.

Many of the deficiencies raised by OLA reports appear rooted in insufficient or mismatched resources. For example, recent OLA reports criticized the timeliness of investigations by the Department of Human Rights, inadequate monitoring of pesticides by the Department of Agriculture, weak internal controls at the Department of Natural Resources, the Pollution Control Agency failure to conduct timely permit compliance inspections and the adequacy of the Public Service Commission’s engagement of the public. Recently, OLA issued another damning report regarding the fumbling of grants by the Department of Human Services and the failure of the Department of Public Safety to comply with statutory timeframes for conducting driver exams.

Republican senators pile on after the OLA reports are issued. For example, Republican senators have highlighted and magnified OLA criticism of Department of Human Services management, the Department of Health regarding a failure to timely process nursing home complaints and jumped on an OLA report suggesting the Department of Transportation could do better tracking costs.

Problems reported by the OLA and echoed by Republican senators are often well-grounded. What is not well-grounded is promoting a 5% reduction in state government “infrastructure” as a response to those concerns. This is like feigning shock about a leaky wastewater treatment plant and then proposing to stop the leak by cutting the plant’s capital and operating budget by 5%.

Strengthening state government infrastructure

There are areas of state governmental “infrastructure” that require additional investment of money and time, including technology, staffing and the underlying statutory/regulatory framework within which state departments operate.

Approximately a decade ago, the Legislature consolidated the state’s diffuse technological activities and created Minnesota IT Services (MNIT). Despite MNIT’s technologically savvy personnel, the OLA has issued several reports raising concerns about MNIT’s actions regarding the implementation of specific departmental programs.

From a consumer standpoint, the state’s technology appears to need an upgrade. Many Minnesotans remain haunted by the stumbling rollout of MNsure, the problems with MNLARS (driver registration), the recent crashing of the Department of Health call center for those seeking a vaccine shot and the loss of millions of dollars due to a computer glitch with the Minnesota Eligibility Technology System.

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In a rapidly changing world with artificial intelligence, 5G and surreptitious hackers lurking about, the question should be: What could MNIT do to improve the lives of Minnesotans if its budget was increased, not decreased, by 5%?

State has grown; demands have increased

Since 2010, Minnesota’s population increased by approximately 6%, new technologies have advanced, and demands for effective state government engagement on issues like racial inequality, campaign finance, efficient licensure delivery and health care have increased. In the last 10 years, the overall number of state personnel has increased. However, according to reports from the Office of Management and Budget, since 2010 the critically important Departments of Revenue, Natural Resources, Public Safety, Commerce, Economic Development, Administration, Labor and Industry, and the Pollution Control Agency have seen no significant increase in staffing.

It is hard to understand how a proposed 5% reduction in “government administrative services” will improve our parks, environment or workplaces. Instead of sending a lifeline to the “bureaucrats” they frequently malign, the Republican senators’ effort to further “tighten state government’s belt” will cause further asphyxiation.

Resources required

Importantly, the regulatory regime designed to ensure that Minnesotans are protected needs a refresh, which requires resources. State government regulates areas of enormous significance, including campaigns, energy, nursing homes, insurance, securities, transportation, banking, agriculture, working conditions and the environment. The oversight of these areas is governed by statutes passed by the Legislature and regulations implementing the statutes.

Robert Moilanen
Robert Moilanen
According to reports by the Revisor’s Office, rulemaking proceedings have significantly declined. For the 10-year period ending in 1999, the state averaged 153 “New Rule Filings” annually. In the 10-year period ending in 2018, the state averaged only 74 annually. Some might applaud this circumstance by reflexively concluding that updating statutes and rules will result in enhanced burdens and complexity. However, updating regulatory frameworks to fit today’s world would likely create greater efficiencies, reduce costs for those regulated and provide greater security to Minnesotans.

Taken collectively, reports by the OLA evidence a pattern of deficiencies within state government. While amplifying the deficiencies highlighted in OLA reports, the Republican senators’ “belt tightening” proposal will further erode state government infrastructure and perpetuate the very problems they pretend to express concern over.

Robert Moilanen is a retired lawyer whose work history includes time at the Minnesota Department of Commerce and the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.

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