OUR OPINION: From big government to lean government
As Minnesota struggles to plot its course through uncharted political waters, two actions by neighboring states loom large. One will take place on Tuesday, when Wisconsin voters decide whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Besides the presidential...
As Minnesota struggles to plot its course through uncharted political waters, two actions by neighboring states loom large.
One will take place on Tuesday, when Wisconsin voters decide whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker.
Besides the presidential contest in November, the Wisconsin vote is the year's most closely watched election. That's because "at issue is whether Wisconsin should continue to move away from the Blue Social Model," writes John Ellis at the trend-watching website, Buzzfeed.com.
"The names on the ballot are Gov. Scott Walker, R, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, D. But they are basically proxies for a larger policy battle. Simply put: Gov. Walker is a vote against and away from Big Blue, Mayor Barrett is an affirmation of it."
And Big Blue, of course, is the high-tax, high-services model that used to be the consensus approach to governing in Minnesota.
If Wisconsin voters "reconfirm" Walker -- as the polls say they're going to do -- then Minnesota is much more likely to follow Wisconsin's lead and hamstring its public-employee unions. That would be a big departure from Minnesota history, exactly as it was in Wisconsin. But even so, it shouldn't be a surprise, because the trends have moving that way for some time.
After all, Minnesota elected conservative Republican majorities in both its House and Senate in 2010. The state came within a few thousand votes of electing as governor Tom Emmer, a conservative Republican who clearly would have signed every Walker-style reform the GOP-led Legislature sent his way.
And just as tellingly, when Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature got into a stare-down that shut down the government last year, Dayton blinked. The governor worked hard to muster public support for a tax increase to balance the budget. But the support wasn't there; so in the end, Dayton accepted a settlement that honored the GOP's "no new taxes" pledge.
Nothing about that scenario -- neither the standoff, the shutdown nor the settlement -- would have happened in "The State that Works," Minnesota in the 1970s.
Understandably, many Minnesotans feel nostalgic for that time and dread the ever-more-likely cutbacks. After all, a Minnesota without its top-flight schools, parks, university system and arts institutions would be "nothing more than a cold Mississippi," as the saying goes.
But there is an alternative: a way of delivering quality services at notably lower cost. Call it a "lower tax, high services" model. Then consider the second "action by a neighboring state" referred to above: The North Dakota House's refusal last year to force new government workers into 401(k)-type pension plans.
Think of it. In a Capitol that's even more Republican than Wisconsin's is, the North Dakota Legislature balked. The House -- the Republican supermajority House -- shunned the signature conservative reform of closing off to new state workers the promise of a traditional pension.
Because thanks to North Dakota's status as a right-to-work state, government workers here aren't overpaid, nor are their pensions especially generous.
Traditionally, government workers accepted low pay in return for good benefits and job security. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, union strength changed those terms, so that public-sector workers get good pay in addition to good benefits and job security. But that has proven to be unaffordable as time and step increases roll on.
In North Dakota, in contrast -- and this is subject to change; we'll see how the state's wealth affects salaries over time -- the old bargain basically still holds. And that has made all the difference.
"Gov. Walker's reforms ought to appeal to big-government liberals as much as they do to small-government conservatives," wrote conservative columnist James Taranto in The Wall Street Journal last week.
"After all, a muscular government is a lean government. In the long run, the Democratic Party could survive and even thrive without the help of government unions, as it did in the second third of the 20th century (the 1930s through the 1950s)."
Taranto didn't single out North Dakota. But he could have, and it would have helped make a key part of his point.
-- Tom Dennis for the Herald