Innovative ideas needed to take care of Minnesota’s fiscal future

For years, state officials have resorted to the equivalent of pay-day loans to balance Minnesota’s budget.

Now, with the loans coming due, we’re stuck with the questions of a panic-stricken borrower: Where can I grab more cash? Where can I slash spending?

Because that is the reality confronting Minnesota this year, those are the questions posed in MinnPost’s budget calculator.

But no Minnesotan who cares about the state’s future should settle for those questions alone. In the urgency forced on us by the state’s fiscal mess, this is the time to probe deeper with questions about the very structures of government as it meets — or fails to meet — Minnesota’s priorities and future needs.

To name a few:   

  • How should the state shift its resources to meet a future when baby boomers will retire and a new generation will be challenged to fill their jobs?
  • If we cherish K-12 education enough to make it our single biggest general fund expenditure, then shouldn’t we insist on closing the achievement gap between white students and racial minorities? Shouldn’t we demand better achievement in science for all students?
  • How can we restructure long term care so that we don’t kick Granny out of the nursing home but we also don’t go broke paying the costs associated with an aging population?
  • Can we find the political will to tear down inefficient government structures that are riddled with overlapping services and excessive costs? Can we deliver more services along regional rather than county or school district lines? Do we need as many college campuses? As many law enforcement units? As many prison beds? As many different IT systems?
  • In the wake of the revamped federal health insurance system, should the state overhaul its costly health care programs?
  • Rather than starting with a presumed budget and asking what can be cut, should the Legislature wipe its spending slate clean and use a “zero-based” approach, matching the state’s current needs with the funds that are available for each biennium?      

In the months to come, you will see Minnesota’s fiscal crisis ignite ferocious political battles.

Pay close attention, though, and you will see something else that you may not have expected. Many Minnesota leaders and groups are rising to meet the challenges posed by this crisis, to seek answers to the critical long-term questions.

There is real excitement in the air. There is a wealth of ideas for securing Minnesota’s well-being.

To supplement MinnPost’s budget calculator, with its crisis-driven questions, we will cover innovative ideas as they evolve this year. And we will touch base with the thinkers and leaders who are working to propel the state toward a more prosperous future.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/09/2011 - 05:40 pm.

    My two pennies’ worth regarding the few:

    1. Benefits, across the board, ought to be means-tested. Wealthy retirees ought not to be feeding at the public trough in addition to their private fortunes. Middle-of-the-roaders ought to get less in benefits from the state than those with demonstrable need. We have lots of practice at weeding out the undeserving among the poor – that same process ought to be expanded to the whole income spectrum.

    Technical and human innovation will be needed to maintain productivity with a younger, smaller, more diverse workforce. This leads directly to item #2.

    2. Indeed, if we cherish our young people – not just K-12 education, but the children for whom it’s intended – then yes, yes, yes, the achievement gap has to be closed. The problem, of course, is how to do that. My take is that much of our current culture is corrosive, and antithetical to education. That won’t sit well with those who worship at the altar of the market, but part of our current dilemma is due to the overwhelming success of Madison Avenue at selling the country a culture that’s shallow, vapid, and obsessed with the material.

    Worshiping sports figures and entertainment personalities sells lots of merchandise in a society that itself worships consumption, but that’s the crux of the problem – consumption is not a worthy goal for a life, or a society. In some ways, values and attitudes need to change to something closer to an earlier America in terms of perseverance and hard work, with a lot less emphasis on “fun,” especially in terms of learning, which is often hard and tedious work. At the same time, regression to the past isn’t the point. I’m an old guy, but I don’t want us to go back to the days of my youth in the 1950s. Many attitudes and values of the past do not serve us well now, and will not serve us well in the future. Discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, economic circumstances, religion, sexual preference, etc., all of which are characteristic of the past and/or present, has to be eliminated to the maximum degree possible if we’re to tap the talents of everyone who might make a positive contribution.

    As for the importance of science, I can’t agree completely. Yes, we should demand better achievement in science. We should also demand better achievement in English, history, math, art, music, and physical fitness. The Nazis had plenty of people who were very competent mathematicians and scientists. It’s very important to have an idea, a consensus, really, of what’s to be done with the science and math once they’re learned. “How?” and “Why?” are important questions, but so is “To what end?”

    Summer vacation, as presently constituted, has no educational value or purpose. I was a teacher for 30 years. Its exhausting work, and I’m all for holidays, but spread them out through a 12-month school year. Extend the school day by a meaningful amount – an extra hour, at least – and use it productively. School is, or should be, preparation for adulthood.

    3. A full-time, live-in nurse at my home, with appropriate medical equipment, costs far less than having me move to a nursing home. Ways and means need to be found to allow the elderly to “age in place,” and where possible, to die – as we all will – at home.

    4. By all means, yes. Consolidate services and structures wherever efficiencies can be shown to be the result. Does Minnesota actually NEED county government in counties with only a couple thousand people? Why not merge rural, low-population counties? Regional services might work better, and eliminate duplication in the process. Local schools are a tradition, but date from the days of horse and buggy, as does the 180-day school year. I can’t speak to the need for college campuses as a newbie to the state – I don’t even know how many there are. Law enforcement, like county government, routinely duplicates services. So do IT systems. End the ludicrous and hugely expensive “War on Drugs.” Addicts are not cured by prison terms. We tried prohibition with alcohol. It didn’t work, and we got organized crime as a result. The same thing has happened all over again with other drugs. We’re in denial.

    5. Yes. Health care is now rationed by income or wealth. It has to be rationed by some standard – we can’t afford every treatment possible for every individual – so the standard needs to be more equitable.

    6. I don’t know. Sounds interesting. Maybe not every biennium (some programs take a while to demonstrate their value, or the lack thereof), but every 3rd one?

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