GOP leaders in Legislature embracing changes proposed by business community

State Sen. Amy Koch
State Sen. Amy Koch

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.

Bill Blazar
Bill Blazar

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.

John James
sensibletax.org
John James

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.”

State Rep. Keith Downey
State Rep. Keith Downey

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.”

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Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/09/2010 - 09:38 am.

    “More properly stated, the GOP is proposing to clear chairs off the deck.”

    Well, that’s going to help. I do expect my exaggerations to get more over absurd over time, but I like to think of this morning’s comments as a good start. But I don’t want to be unduly harsh right now. The Republicans have assumed a huge burden, one they didn’t really expect, and aren’t prepared for right now. It’s not surprising to me that for the moment they are focused on the superficial, the things that matter more to capitol insiders than they do to the public. And of course, those things are easier. It takes a couple of minutes to put together a legislative committee structure, and it costs literally nothing, and you get a free news story out of it. Cutting 5.8 billion dollars from the budget is going to be a little more challenging.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/09/2010 - 09:01 am.

    So far, Republicans seem to be mostly focused on restructuring the deck chairs on the Titanic. Merging committees, even firing pages, doesn’t address the budget deficit.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/09/2010 - 09:13 am.

    Legislation isn’t buried by organization charts, it’s buried by legislators.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/09/2010 - 09:25 am.

    More properly stated, the GOP is proposing to clear chairs off the deck.

    And who said anything about pages?

    Seems to me that you can always tell when you are doing something right when your opposition is forced to make absurd exaggerations to attempt to engage the discussion.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/09/2010 - 09:55 am.

    “Both the House and Senate have agreed to have fewer committees,”

    Fewer committees, fewer pages. It’s as simple as that, Tom Thumb.

  6. Submitted by Craig Westover on 11/09/2010 - 10:00 am.

    Every organization — public or private — produces only three outputs: How many of what kind at what cost. It’s premature and unproductive to talk about redesigning government (reducing costs) without first deciding what the scope of government will be (how many of what kind of services gov’t will provide).

    Hiram is correct reducing committees and laying off government workers won’t make much dent in the budget. However, laying off government workers BECAUSE the million dollar programs they administer go away saves, well, millions/billions of dollars.

    The first step in gov’t redesign must be reducing the scope of gov’t to its constitutional responsibilities and obligations. Then we can tweak the system to meet those responsibilities and fulfill those obligations as effectively and efficiently as possible.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/09/2010 - 10:41 am.

    The constitution isn’t a policy document.

  8. Submitted by Josh Williams on 11/09/2010 - 10:49 am.

    Color me a little skeptical. On issues such as, say, environmental regulation, the Chamber tends to view any government regulation as inherently bad, and ignore or choose to forget the fact that far too often the negative impacts of economic activity are not properly internalized. That is, these costs/impacts are born not by the producer or the consumer of a product or service, but by the unfortunate person sitting downwind (or by the public as a whole). Thus, we have regulations, enforced by the government (i.e. ourselves) to ensure that costs/impacts are born by those creating and/or benefiting from them.

  9. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/09/2010 - 11:05 am.

    Craig,
    I would find it helpful if you read and understood the constitution before calling for the limited government you so desire. The articles of confederation, how we operated for the first ten years, are more your style Craig. Personally, I prefer the constitution to the articles of confederation. I guess that is because I have read the constitution though.

  10. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/09/2010 - 11:07 am.

    “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.”

    I don’t want to criticize ideas before knowing what they are, but if I were a legislator, I’d want to keep in mind whom I’m representing in government. The job is to represent the people and the people’s interests. Corporations, and the groups who represent them, tend to not think about the long-term good of the people so much as the short term interests of shareholders. Legislators need to remember to keep that difference in mind. Businesses don’t create jobs out of the goodness of their hearts, but in order to turn a profit.

  11. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/09/2010 - 11:28 am.

    …dramatically reduces the time to enroll personal care attendants, saving 20,000 hours of state employee time per year…

    So what could be underneath that one sentence?

    Have there ever been cases where unsuitable people have been appointed care-takers that abuse their wards?

    Have there ever been cases where the quickest solution has not been the best solution?

    Have there ever been cases where unqualified and untrained people have been slid into jobs without oversight?

    Have there ever been employment companies who have slots to fill that have not provided appropriate oversight?

    Have employment companies ever provided illegal or non-English speaking workers in order to maximize their profits?

    Is it fiscally AND morally prudent to carefully review the people who take care of the incapable?

    Who needs regulation?

    Certainly not the people who financially benefit by lax oversight.

  12. Submitted by Steve Marchese on 11/09/2010 - 11:37 am.

    Businesses may create jobs, but it’s the people who vote. (Last I checked.) The pro-business rhetoric coming from the GOP leadership isn’t unexpected. But, when the rubber hits the road drafting the budget, the majority will have to make some hard choices about where to make the cuts. In which case, all the warm and friendly business platitudes will mean nothing to the real people who may be watching their roads crumble, schools close, and police laid off. Then we’ll really see how effective all this talk of smaller, redesigned government actually goes.

    I think the new GOP majority will find actually governing to be a lot harder than their past history of verbal bomb-throwing.

  13. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/09/2010 - 11:58 am.

    “Have there ever been cases where unsuitable people have been appointed care-takers that abuse their wards?”

    In Crow Wing County it appears so, but the investigation isn’t complete.

  14. Submitted by nick gorski on 11/09/2010 - 12:14 pm.

    Well, since those activist judges on the Supreme Court have declared a stack of papers a person, it only makes sense that another stack of papers (The Chamber) be put in charge.

  15. Submitted by Tom Miller on 11/09/2010 - 12:16 pm.

    It seems like the lobbyists will be writing the legislation. That is a streamlining of government that citizens can ill afford, since the authors of laws will write them in a way to benefit themselves, not the public at large. This may be efficient in the sense that a lot of laws can be written with less expenditure of legislators’ efforts; but the result will be a lack of understanding of a bill’s complexities and impact when the votes are taken. The actual impact of quickly-written and ill-considered legislation may not be obvious for years.

  16. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 11/09/2010 - 12:43 pm.

    Why do we even have legislators if we’re going to let lobbyists – and that’s what the Chamber of Commerce and the Taxpayers Association essentially are – run the whole state?

    I mean Republicans were complaining about DFL “special interests” and the Republicans are admitting they just plan to take a hands-off approach to their job.

  17. Submitted by Ray Aune on 11/09/2010 - 12:45 pm.

    So we may be seeing our own K-street style shenanigans in the state house- along with occasional token bills like the Oklahoma anti-Sharia bill.

    And it may be the people making the scribbles on the ballot but it’s the money telling them who to scribble for/against. Based on that point alone it’s understandable that local Chambers of Commerce or similar organizations will have direct access if not direct ability to craft legislation.
    What was that old saw about an honest politician being one who stays bought?

  18. Submitted by B Maginnis on 11/09/2010 - 01:33 pm.

    Sharia law does not precede our constitutional law, nor should it be recognized in the U.S.

    Discuss.

  19. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 11/09/2010 - 03:06 pm.

    I’m sorry, is it? Is this actually a problem? And why are the same people that seem so concerned the same ones that want to institute some kind of biblical law? I consider both those advocating for Sharia law (nobody in the U.S. I’ve ever heard of) and rule of the Bible (seemingly half the population) enemies of modern democracy.

    Ironically, the Sharia law so feared by the Evangelical right is probably a lot closer to their ideal than those of us advocating a progressive, enlightened, science-informed, secular democracy. Maybe ya’ll should team up. But actually it’s quite clear this is simply a religious battle that has no place in politics.

  20. Submitted by Dick Novack on 11/09/2010 - 03:51 pm.

    Could we get back to a topic in the article?

    Having witnessed the legislature in operation for a long time, I have to agree with Rep. Keith Downey that legislative procedure has become is too cumbersome. Each bill goes to countless committees at the call of that committee’s chair.

    (Keith, don’t faint, we still disagree on a lot of things. You may want to frame this comment.)

    Each committee, division, and subcommittee chair controls which bills come forth for hearings in their committees. By simply asking, any legislation can be sidetracked to a committee if a Chari wants his/her hands on it. All it takes is one cantankerous S.O.B. Chair to block it somewhere in the system and it is dead for the session – barring extraordinary measures to get it onto the floor.

    Bills should only have to go through a couple committees – for example, highways, limit it to Transportation and Finance. Making innumerable stops is now too common and wastes time and staff expenses. Further, a small minority of members should be able to bring a bill forward in any committee despite the Chair.

    This kind of reform is usually the wish of freshmen legislators of either party while the old guard usually likes the maze. This year there are so many freshmen, just maybe, some streamlining is possible.

  21. Submitted by Rita Albrecht on 11/09/2010 - 04:14 pm.

    “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”

    And fewer opportunities for the public to comment on a bill. Not everyone lives in the metro. People in greater MN (I live 4 hours away from the capitol), have a more difficult time attending a committee meeting at the drop of a hat to testify on a bill.

    As far as letting the Chamber write legislation, I have to agree with #8 and #10

  22. Submitted by Christopher Bell on 11/09/2010 - 04:18 pm.

    The people of MN will need to decide what state government benefits and services they collectively want and are willing to pay for by various types of taxes (some combination of income, property, sales and so on). This decision will not result from some overarching economic or political theory. It will instead result from hundreds of smaller decisions by legislators as to which programs are to be cut and by how much, in order to balance the budget without increasing taxes. Existing programs affecting real people will feel the knife. Minnesotans will have a chance in two years to decide whether or not their elected representatives created a better Minnesota government.

  23. Submitted by Christopher Bell on 11/09/2010 - 04:22 pm.

    It is past time to consider reducing the number of counties from 87 down to about 10. This should save hundreds of millions of dollars and would be true government reform.

  24. Submitted by Joel Gingery on 11/10/2010 - 06:36 am.

    My concern is that for a business friendly party, there is no recognition of ‘investment’ as an option to improve the quality of life here in MN.

    The essence of business is investing money now to improve results in the future; I see no indication that anyone involved with this process is aware of this principle.

    That may be the difference between conservatives and progressives: conservatives assume people must make it on their own.

    Progressives believe in investing in people and the institutions that support their individual and community aspirations.

  25. Submitted by Tony Spadafora on 11/10/2010 - 06:53 am.

    Will the rich save the poor or will the poor destroy the rich?

    Stay tunes…

  26. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/10/2010 - 12:16 pm.

    Chris B (#23) — Reducing the number of counties may sound good on paper, but all it would mean is that each county had so many more people needing services that there would be no overall statewide reduction in the number of employees needed. Each county could become utterly unwieldy instead of remaining at a size its board can manage intelligently.

    One thing some counties have done to save money without hurting anyone is to develop cooperative purchasing or other arrangments.

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