It’s a good time to be a policy wonk. The Republicans now in control of the Minnesota House and Senate appear to be ready to embrace the reform and redesign ideas that groups like the Citizen League, Taxpayers Association and Minnesota Chamber of Commerce have been advocating since the mid-1990s.
With the promise to balance the budget without a tax increase and no real blood lust for across-the-board cuts, Republican legislators have decided to seize the day. “With this turnover you have some real opportunity,” says Amy Koch, new Senate majority leader. “Because there’s an expectation for change, there’s a lower level of resistance.”
Koch puts a lot of stock in the input from Minnesota businesses. “We want to know: What has been hindering you, what has been holding you back? Then, how can we redesign to help?” she says of the business community. “You get a twofer. We save money and create jobs.”
Legislators will have no shortage of specifics. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest business lobby, will develop proposed legislation for human services, public employee compensation, K-12 education, environmental permitting, energy and education reforms.
Individually, the proposals may seem to be minor. For example, Bill Blazar, senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber, points to a change already underway in the Department of Human Services that he says dramatically reduces the time to enroll personal care attendants, saving 20,000 hours of state employee time per year.
“It may be small potatoes,” he said. “But if you do enough small potatoes, eventually you’ve got a pretty good meal.”
The Legislature will also be hearing from people who want to reform the revenue side of the picture. John James, commissioner of revenue under Gov. Rudy Perpich, is promoting an expansion of the consumer sales tax base and a reduction in the current rate of 6.875 percent. His think tank, sensibletax.org, also has a set of reform guidelines, and James says he will be active in the legislative debate.
The Republicans say they will heal themselves in terms of restructuring. “Both the House and Senate have agreed to have fewer committees,” according to Koch. “We have an amazing opportunity to redraw the committees to be most effective.”
Keith Downey, state representative from Edina, who is working on the House restructuring, says fewer committees will mean fewer opportunities to bury a bill that should be kept alive. “The process for a bill to make it to the floor was extremely laborious,” he said. “It had to go to a division of a division of a subcommittee of a committee. The process needs to be cleaner.”
Even with clearing the path toward passage, legislation that redesigns Minnesota government will meet opposition. The goal may be elegantly simple — deliver equal service at a lower cost — but the process is still complex.
“This is a lot harder than people think because you’re talking about making significant changes to complicated systems,” Blazar said. “The bureaucracy and the recipients are getting affected.”
The other significant challenge is that redesign takes a while to see savings. “Can we turn the ship fast enough? Can we put the moving parts together in a coherent way and do it fast enough to make a budget difference,” Downey wonders.
It’s the $6 billion question that Senate Majority Leader Koch answers this way: “We recognize that some of these ideas are not going to book the savings in the short term. In the short term we have to make tough decisions [about budget cuts], in the big picture people will recognize these are going to be good ideas.”