I hate new year’s resolutions. I never accomplish them. Mine usually involve more exercise and losing weight — and usually I’ve broken them within a week.
When I served in the Legislature, I avoided resolutions involving politics. There was just too much that I couldn’t control. How could I resolve to pay attention in committee when some hearings lasted until 2 a.m.? How could I be kind to my political adversaries when they killed my funding for the Anoka Halloween parade?
But just because I’m a serial failure at resolutions doesn’t mean that I can’t suggest resolutions for others. And given the result of the recent presidential election and the new majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate, this might be a particularly good year to humbly recommend a few priorities to our elected officials who will soon resume their work in St. Paul.
The 2016 session left major issues unresolved, including a transportation funding package, a bonding bill, and a tax bill that provided relief for individuals and businesses. In 2017, legislators and the governor also must craft a budget that puts the state on solid financial footing, address the seemingly intractable achievement gap and deal with the health-insurance mess that has resulted in steep premium increases for thousands of Minnesotans.
Here are a few resolutions that might help as legislators tackle these challenges:
Fix our infrastructure: This one should be easy. Republicans and Democrats agree that a comprehensive transportation solution is a top priority this session, and it’s easy to see why. Long-term transportation funding for roads, bridges and transit is critical to Minnesota’s economic competitiveness and quality of life, and there’s no dispute that current projected revenues will be insufficient to meet the needs. Despite making some progress toward a transportation deal last session, disagreements over light rail and transportation taxes ultimately led to an impasse.
With a budget surplus and an alliance of business and the trades, this should be easier than losing weight.
Make Minnesota competitive: Our state is blessed with amazing job providers like 3M, United Health, Medtronic, Cargill, Target and many others who play a large role in our remarkable quality of life. But in our highly competitive global economy, our tax system discourages companies from locating high-skill, high paying jobs here. We have the third-highest personal and corporate income tax rates and one of the heaviest business property tax burdens in the nation. To attract and retain the great businesses that propel our economy, we must do better.
We may never be a low-tax state, and that’s OK. But let’s at least make an effort to get out of the top 10 states in tax burden for individuals. Policymakers should also adopt uniform statewide labor standards to replace the growing patchwork of local employment regulations that limit employees’ flexibility and creates administrative, financial, and legal burdens for employers of all sizes.
Spend smart: Our budget surplus has created an enormous temptation for legislators to spend money on a wide variety of new initiatives. Unfortunately, as often with too much of a good thing, this can end in a hangover for taxpayers. Spending growth in the largest areas of Minnesota’s general fund budget is growing faster than the economy; the state is expected to see double-digit spending growth in some budget areas in the next cycle. Meanwhile, demographic changes and other forces are likely to exacerbate spending challenges and make current budgeting practices unsustainable.
Here’s hoping this resolution will cause legislators and the governor to step away from the big spending buffet and use caution when adopting the state’s budget.
Give everyone a chance: This may be the most important resolution and is certainly the most difficult. It affects the future success of our state and addresses a problem that is so very un-Minnesotan — our achievement gap. The governor correctly cites economic disparities in our workforce as a problem that needs solving. The first step is to address its primary cause — education disparities. We simply can no longer tolerate a K-12 system that results in about half of our students of color graduating from high school in Minneapolis and only a quarter reading or doing math at grade level.
The good news is that we know how to meet this challenge. We have examples of success here in the heart of Minneapolis and St. Paul and around the country. Insist on high standards, test students according to those standards, measure and report the results so parents know how their children are doing, hire great teachers and principals and fire bad ones, and give parents choices in the schools their children attend.
Play nice: I’ve tried to achieve this resolution over the course of my career, with varying success. Especially in this era of instant communication, legislators face a barrage of criticism almost daily. The urge to respond in kind is understandable but ultimately counterproductive. What I have learned is that “playing nice,” though more difficult even than working out on the treadmill every day, does result in long-term success. In the Trump era in which we’re about to live, I suspect civility will become even more important, and perhaps more scarce.
I am optimistic that the 2017 Legislature and the governor will work together on the very real — but solvable — challenges facing Minnesotans. Certainly the voters expect it. As usual, the path will be bumpy, but if 2016 taught us anything, it’s that anything is possible.
Charlie Weaver is the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents the CEOs of Minnesota’s largest companies.