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State view: The mandate of 2010? Reform

With the Minnesota Legislature now convened, Republicans and Democrats will be laying claim to their respective version of the "voters' mandate." Republicans, who won majorities in both houses of the Legislature, are convinced Minnesotans want al...

With the Minnesota Legislature now convened, Republicans and Democrats will be laying claim to their respective version of the "voters' mandate." Republicans, who won majorities in both houses of the Legislature, are convinced Minnesotans want all solutions to fixing the state's deficit to come from the spending side of the ledger. Democrats, backed by the election of DFLer Mark Dayton to the governor's office, are equally adamant Minnesotans are willing to accept some higher taxes to maintain vital services.

If those are the only mandates Democrats and Republicans heard in the 2010 elections, Minnesotans better get used to another word: gridlock. Meaningful, long-term solutions won't be found if spending cuts or higher taxes are the only two tools used by legislators and the governor in an effort to forge good policy.

Legislators and the governor would do well to look beyond what one party or the other claims as a mandate and find in today's divided government the great opportunity for reform. Not policies that simply make the status quo cheaper (by cutting spending) or larger (by raising taxes), but innovations that build a stronger Minnesota for everyone.

Education is a good place to start. The debate in 2011 is shaping up as a rerun of the past several years in which the key question asked by both DFL and GOP state leaders was, "How much?" How much should we spend on teachers? How much should we ask property owners to pay to support local schools? How much should we ask students and their families to go into debt for college education?

A far better question is, "What for?" What we really need to be paying for is outcomes not measured by test scores but by citizens prepared for the future. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimated that by 2018, 70 percent of Minnesota's jobs will require some level of post-high school training. Today, we are falling far short. Yet policy discussions in Minnesota too often revolve around fixing an institution like traditional classroom instruction in traditional schools. That is hopelessly out of date. Needed are entirely new approaches. Put teachers in charge of schools, really in charge of schools, trusting them to hire and fire, to determine curriculum and to make decisions about how resources are allocated. Engage students as partners in education, not just as passive sponges of facts. Use technology and student-directed learning projects in ways that allow students to create their own paths to knowledge. Invest in early-childhood learning to make sure kids enter kindergarten prepared to succeed.

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The same is true of economic development. Democrats and Republicans need to think differently. Minnesota's future is much more tied to the Biomedical Discovery District at the University of Minnesota -- a center of research that will produce breakthroughs in medical science and private sector job creation -- than company-specific tax incentives. In other words, economic development of the future will be about knowledge, requiring more public and private research dollars; a strong talent pool of workers, making accessible and affordable life-long learning essential; and a marketplace that values innovation and risk-taking, necessitating streamlined regulatory processes and a tax system that promotes investment.

Minnesota's tax system is the third area crying for reform. Minnesota's tax system should ask more of the wealthy, as Dayton proposes, but should do so by simplifying the state's tax system, curtailing deductions that disproportionately reward the well-off. Republicans are right in their contention that raising the income tax rates punishes job creation (higher individual income tax rates fall heavily on the small businesses that are creating the most jobs), making it difficult to attract and retain top talent in Minnesota. The state needs comprehensive tax reform, starting with a transition to a system that rewards investment and savings. That means more revenue has to come from consumption taxes. Minnesota should lower the sales tax rate but apply it to more goods and services. The result would be a tax system that rewards investment, promotes economic growth -- including job creation -- and creates enough revenue for education and other core public services.

If policymakers in St. Paul are looking for the mandate of the 2010 election, they can try this: Voters are tired of politics as usual. They tossed the incumbent parties -- Democrats from control of the Legislature and Republicans from the governor's office -- as a way of telling all politicians it's time to end gridlock. Reform offers Democrats and Republicans the opportunity to deliver on their principles and to restore Minnesota to a state of prosperity through innovation. That's a mandate for the future.

Tom Horner was the Independence Party candidate for governor in 2010.

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