How to judge the whirlwind that was the 2023 Minnesota Legislature's session? Some will measure dollars spent ($72 billion over two years, up 38% from the previous biennium). Some will score taxes raised ($2.2 billion in just the tax bill) and/or taxes cut ($3 billion) over two years.
Some will cheer and some will curse the clearing of a logjam of DFL-backed legislation that had accumulated during years of divided government. Think $2.6 billion for infrastructure projects, automatic voter registration, universal background checks for gun purchasers, voting rights for non-incarcerated felons, driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.
But despite my fondness for Minnesota history, I'm not content to judge this session by looking backward. State government's job is to position Minnesota for what's ahead, to foresee looming problems and ease or avert them.
One such problem: a shortage of workers. That's a here-and-now economic hardship that, if unaddressed, could throttle prosperity for years to come.
State demographer Susan Brower has been making that case on the civic luncheon circuit. She foretells that barring an immigration surge, the number of working-age Minnesotans (ages 16 to 64) won't noticeably increase in the next 20 years.
Why has growth stopped? Baby boomer retirements, for one thing. A slowdown in international immigration for another. But a disconcerting factor is that for the past 20 years, Minnesota has lost more people to other states than it has gained.
I'm not talking about senior snowbirds who fly away to tax havens. The exodus that's shrinking the workforce is among late teens and 20-somethings who leave for college and/or career starts and don't come back.
As a result, employers are constantly seeking more workers and backing off Minnesota expansion plans. Already, Brower said in March, Minnesota has more than 200,000 job openings and fewer than 68,000 jobless people who might, if appropriately prepared, fill them. That gap could grow, particularly if it's ignored by policymakers.
It wasn't ignored this session. But neither was it systematically attacked with a high-profile strategy. Gov. Tim Walz's oft-touted aim to make Minnesota the best state in which to raise children is a close cousin of a workforce growth initiative, but it misses the optimal demographic target by 10 or 15 years.
Still, a number of this year's moves look likely to serve one or both of two goals that should be paramount now: Minnesota needs to attract (and retain) as much talent as possible, and to make the most of the workers already here.
Plenty of measures fill that bill, even if they weren't tied together with a tidy strategic bow. Paid family and medical leave can keep caregivers attached to their jobs. Better transit service, courtesy of a metro-only 0.75% sales tax, should make getting to work easier. A hefty increase in early education scholarships and child care support should help parents be employees too.
A billion-dollar housing investment should bring workers and jobs into closer proximity. Keeping abortion legal can attract young job-seekers. Providing a legal refuge for transgender youth invites them to come for medical care and stay for good. A $300 million funding boost for nursing homes — a deal-making accomplishment for which minority Republicans can take a bow — should make caregiving jobs more attractive.
Then there's higher ed. This year's higher ed bill contains one stellar feature: a promise to students whose families have annual incomes under $80,000 that they can enroll tuition-free at schools in the Minnesota State system. The bill also provided a nearly $300 million funding increase for that system (82% of its request) to help pay for a two-year tuition freeze. Such largesse should be a boon to Minnesota State enrollment, which has been lagging.
But the bill isn't as kind to the state's most important magnet for top talent, the University of Minnesota. Its funding increase was $121 million, about 40% of its request. Its share of the bonding bill was $45 million smaller than Minnesota State's. The result is bound to be program-eroding cuts and higher tuition at the U.
Finding fault with higher ed in general and big research universities in particular has become fashionable among some politicians. But that trend is an indulgence that a state like Minnesota, which needs more highly educated workers, can ill afford.
To paraphrase the late Gov. Elmer L. Andersen, the University of Minnesota is both this state's educational fountainhead and economic engine. Especially now, the university should be nurtured by state policymakers, not treated as an unfavored stepchild.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.