Dane Smith: Listen to these voices of experience

2009-09-20T00:00:00Z Dane Smith: Listen to these voices of experienceBy Dane Smith Winona Daily News
September 20, 2009 12:00 am  • 

For those of us in life's second half, 80 years old is the new 70, and 70 is the new 60.

Or something like that.

This is especially true in Minnesota, which is blessed not only with one of the nation's highest longevity rates, but also a vigorous cohort of veteran political leaders still eager to help advise us through our state's fiscal crisis. And of course it's a doozie of a crisis, a whopping projected deficit of as much as

$7 billion for the budget period that will be inherited by the new governor who takes office in 2011.

The Leadership Summit in

St. Paul, and a similar gathering sponsored by civic groups and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, demonstrated the timeless wisdom about the value of experience.

I listened closely for almost eight hours between the two sessions and was struck by how overwhelmingly sensible the observations and advice were. There were no magic bullets, no "little tiny political slogans," as Gov. Arne Carlson put it. Bottom line, there was a recognition of the vital need for public investments and at least some increases in state revenue to address the crisis, along with sound advice about how to make our governments work better and more cost-effectively.

The group included all former governors who are still with us except Jesse Ventura, most former House speakers and former Senate majority leaders, and most former finance commissioners under Republican, DFL and Independence Party administrations.

The legislative Leadership Summit also included a must-see primer on the problem, presented by state economist Tom Stinson and state demographer Tom Gillaspy. And a wealth of authoritative information and data on the fiscal crisis is available at the state Senate Web site, www.senate.leg.state.mn.us.

Here are some key takeaways among dozens of pearls of wisdom.

Carlson emerged as a strong voice for a sense of urgency in tackling the long-term $7 billion projected deficit and not waiting around for the new governor who will take office in 16 months. Carlson, famous for his bluntness, chided Pawlenty for behavior unbecoming a CEO, pursuing another job (the presidency) while his state sits cringing and waiting for a fiscal "tsunami." But Carlson also surfaced a number of constructive and specific ideas: extending retirement ages to reflect the new longevity and productivity, breaking the budget-design process into an "investment piece and a maintenance piece" and favoring the former and serious consideration of European-style "value-added" taxes.

Former House Speaker Martin Sabo, also a former congressman and famously laconic, spoke a mouthful when he said: "There should be one pledge, and that is not to make pledges, by all the candidates running for governor." Sabo, of course, was referring to the now-infamous "no new taxes" pledge that Pawlenty signed after pressure from national and state anti-tax groups, whose leaders repeatedly describe their anti-government strategy as "starve the beast."

Former House Speaker Dee Long challenged entitlement policies that favor people older than 65, when in fact as a group they are better off than others. "Why should my husband and I qualify for a lifetime pass to the national parks?" she asked. Like many others in both groups, Long, also a former Tax Committee chairwoman, made the case for broader, modernized sales tax, on clothing in particular, or a value-added tax.

Former House Speaker Dave Jennings, who was considered a staunch conservative when he led the Republican majority in the mid-1980s and who went on to become a superintendent at urban and suburban school districts, delivered an eloquent appeal for more attention and investment in early childhood development, as a long-term strategy toward economic growth and budget health. Even if there are significant reforms in the K-12 education system, "if the kids aren't ready when they show up at the schoolhouse door, the system has a very difficult time coping with that."

Former Gov. Al Quie, who handled a budget crisis in the early 1980s with a temporary income tax surcharge, repeated the multi-partisan advice from all former governors that Pawlenty has been getting since 2003. "I cannot see how we solve this in the long run unless we do something about revenue right now .... Everybody has to be part of this."

All the Republicans at the event expressed some form of concern that Pawlenty and the current leadership of the House and Senate minorities chose to be no-shows at the Leadership Summit and chose to hold their own summit on the state's economic future at a suburban corporate headquarters.

Jennings said it most charitably and with some ambivalence about who is to blame for the worsening partisan breakdown in state government. "I think it was sad that (Pawlenty) wasn't here today. I'm not angry about it, nor do I lay particular blame anywhere, other than to say it is a sad fact that he wasn't here today."

Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues.

Copyright 2015 Winona Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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