Today’s debut of Bipartisan Redesign Caucus lacks one thing: both sides

The brand-new Bipartisan Redesign Caucus introduced itself to the Minnesota public at a news conference this noon.

There was only one small problem. Republicans on this legislative committee didn’t show up because they were attending a highly partisan caucus meeting.

So what was left were a bunch of DFLers speaking to the wonders of a bipartisan spirit.

Understand, these redesigners want to fix the rest of state government. There’s nothing in their mission, however, about fixing what may be the most dysfunctional institution in state government, which is the state Legislature.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, admits that “we need to remove a few barnacles from the ship,” by which he means the Legislature.

Nonetheless, Marquart is enthusiastic about the importance of redesigning government for future generations.

Group not meant to tackle deficit
Fixing the current problems — the $1.2 billion dollar deficit and the $5.4 billion deficit in the next biennium — is not the goal of this redesign effort, according to Marquart. But, he warned, that those problems are going to be with us into the future if fundamental changes in government aren’t made.

Rep. Paul Marquart
Rep. Paul Marquart

“We have to come up with a better way to provide better services at a better price,” he said. “We have to come up with ways to attain greater achievement with the same dollar.”

Reporters at the news conference were immediately skeptical of the big picture Marquart and a handful of other DFLers were trying to paint.

Their questions were pointed: How much savings now? How will you get large state employee unions to accept the idea of layoffs? How will you measure performance? Haven’t we heard all of this before?

Marquart admitted that the concepts of redesign are not novel. He held up a stack of reports, dating back more than a decade. The reports were all efforts at making government more efficient — about doing more than less. They were dusty and mostly untouched.

But these old plans, he said, were victims of “SPLOTS” — Strategic Plans Landing on the Shelf.

“Now is the time,” Marquart said. “I’m confident if we mix ideas with leadership, we’ll have a formula for success.”

Something to appeal to both sides
The concept of getting government’s work done more efficiently should appeal to both liberals and conservatives, he said. Liberals should like the idea of keeping programs functioning, while conservatives should like the idea of doing things more efficiently.

“If you start focusing on results, it takes away the partisan edge,” Marquart said. “We need to change the direction of the debate.”

Before dealing with the real problems of getting a hyper-partisan body to agree on anything, here’s a quick shot at explaining what redesign means, at least in the view of Ted Kolderie, a founder of Education/Evolving and one of the many good-government types on hand to support the redesign concept.

Kolderie uses a graphic to get across his point: You’ve got a big box. Taxpayer money is poured into the box and the results come out the other end.

Kolderie says that the legislative process deals with the taxpayer money and with the results that come out of the spigot but never works on where everything is done, which is inside the box.

“The real progress comes from changing the mechanism inside the box that turns resources into results,” he said.

Take a big issue, such as health care, Kolderie said. The culture needs to spend far more time on prevention that trying to deal with the high costs of maintaining hospitals and curing those who are sick. In the long run, prevention both costs less and leads to a better result.

Kolderie believes you can apply the same sort of “change the box” thinking across the board.

But let’s deal with reality. Can the Legislature deal with anything except heavy-duty partisanship?

“Politics is no different from what it’s always been,” Kolderie said. But, he was quick to add, that a few decades ago, politicians were more willing to listen and accept neutral analysis of civic problems and then seek to find a solution.

Now?

Turn to today in the state Legislature. As this session begins, members of both parties will try to argue that the focus is on “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

It’s a nice sound bite, but gotcha games are so much easier.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, is one of the Republicans on the Bipartisan Caucus. Like Marquard, he’s a thoughtful, well-intended person.

He missed the unveiling of the Bipartisan Caucus to attend the Republican House caucus meeting, where Urdahl said members talked about their plan to reduce and possibly eliminate, in increments, the state corporate income tax.

Corporate-tax move shot down
Interestingly, many DFLers agree that the corporate income tax must be reduced in the name of job creation. But, when Republicans attempted to introduce their plan on the House floor early this afternoon, the DFL majority voted it down.

Rep. Dean Urdahl
Rep. Dean Urdahl

“The plan itself wasn’t voted down,” said Urdahl, “but our desire to bring it up now was voted down.”

Presumably, Republicans knew that would happen. “See,” they can say, “we try to do things but they won’t listen?”

DFLers will try to explain why now wasn’t the right time to start the discussion.

Both sides will point fingers at each other.

End result: Nothing. That raises the question: This is the body that is going to reform the rest of government?

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, was among the DFLers at the caucus unveiling. It was suggested to him that maybe the Legislature should work on reforming itself, by doing such things as outlawing caucus meetings during session and electing committee chairs by secret ballot.

On the surface, such moves would give legislators more freedom to move away from partisan group-think.

Winkler didn’t think much of the ideas, laughing out loud at the idea of moving away from the party caucus sessions where legislators plot their political strategies.

“It’s how we work,” said Winkler of those caucus meetings. “It’s the way we get something done.”

The whole legislative process, he said, merely reflects “the clash of ideas”in Minnesota, he said. Party caucuses help bring order to those clashes.

But all the partisanship and rancor it creates make taking on big tasks, like redesign, extremely difficult.

Deep down, Winkler wonders if the Legislature can deal with something so big as redesign.

“The Legislature may not be well suited for doing this,” he said. “I think of this as an executive function. It takes a governor, who is willing to offend his base, to create something like this.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 02/08/2010 - 05:44 pm.

    I like your writing here Mr. Grow, almost a new form of journalism. Very interesting.

  2. Submitted by Ross Williams on 02/09/2010 - 10:08 am.

    I think the problem is that you can’t expect people who have thrived and been successful in the current dis-functional environment to make changes that would threaten that success.

    For instance, if we could get money out of politics, almost none of these folks would be in office. Currently, the first criteria for being a serious candidate is the ability to raise money. As the amounts required have increased, the number of potential candidates has dwindled. Far from the best and brightest among us, the current elected officials are the “best” of what is left.

    But money is just one of the issues. They have also thrived in an environment where control of information is power. The public business is largely done in private with periodic media events where the public learns what has been decided. Closed caucuses are just one minor aspect of this process.

    They operate in an environment in which they are celebrities. Their attention is sought after and their favor curried. The voters are their “customers” who need to continue to buy their brand of celebrity. Public policy choices one part of that branding process.

    Most of them have thrived in an environment where ideology is king. Its called holding your base. Its part of creating an easily identifiable brand. To create ones own brand, distinct from any ideology, is next to impossible.

    In short, if we look to those who are successful in our current political system for solutions, we probably won’t see any.

  3. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 02/09/2010 - 02:55 pm.

    I think Doug’s labeling of the Legislature as ‘the most dysfunctional institution in state government’ is not merited. Doug you need to talk to more people in the executive branch. The stories I hear about dysfunction are unbelievable. You need to be careful of such willly nilly journalistic comment.

    Ross Williams comments are off the mark too. He vastly overstates the role of money in the life of the typical legislator. With our now partially unallotted campaign finance system and the recent regrettable supreme court decision his viewpoint might come to be. I worked with a campaign of an outstate legilsator last time. We didn’t have much money, did not ever talk about it, never had anyone approach us in an inappropriate way and worked within the rules. Now, both our side and the other side had outside interests spending money big time but we never knew about it and couldn’t do anything about it. I can not see how it effects this legislators viewpoint and decisions. He is voting his conscience first and then the district’s interests as he views them. There was lots of door knocking and lots of long conversations at some doors. I think this is the way is should be-$30,000 in expenses and lots of shoe leather and time and no obligations to anyone afterwords.

    I think this obsession with ‘openess’ as in journalists and others wanting to be party to every conversation a politician has is a lot of Pollyanna baloney. Celebrities? In my area when I hosted Gov Wendell Anderson only 10 people showed up. For a governor’s candidate it’s maybe 15. This isn’t celebrity.

    Ross is closer to the mark with his ideology comment but even then that is not most legislators. Be careful guys about how Utopian you expect politics and governing to be.

  4. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 02/09/2010 - 04:08 pm.

    Getting more done with less money is good management. That is an executive branch function and we have seen very little management coming from the governor. After seven years, there are no signs that we have any meaningful strategies in key areas of economic development, education, transportation or health care. For a party that is so concerned about cutting government spending, there have been remarkably few innovations coming from the GOP.

    If they are unconcerned about doing more with less, maybe it is true that they just want to do less with less. That their priority is not good government, just less government.

  5. Submitted by Ross Williams on 02/09/2010 - 06:11 pm.

    “He vastly overstates the role of money in the life of the typical legislator.”

    No, I don’t. The average contested legislative race in Minnesota is not won with a $30,000 budget and “shoe leather”. And $30,000 is not chump change. That is $60,000 for both sides in one race and would be close to $12,000,000 for all 200 legislative seats.

    “Now, both our side and the other side had outside interests spending money big time but we never knew about it and couldn’t do anything about it.”

    That you didn’t know about it is irrelevant to the question of whether it determined the outcome. And, frankly, a little hard to believe.

    “I can not see how it effects this legislators viewpoint and decisions.”

    Of course you can’t. If you hire the right person you don’t have to tell them what to do. But I guarantee those who gave money will get in the door and get a respectful hearing for their concerns. And people pay big bucks to lobbyists for nothing more than that.

    But I think the points you make just reinforce the larger point of my post. You can’t expect those who thrive in the current system to overturn it, no matter how dis-functional it is.

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