Thursday, February 10, 2011

State of the State Address. Governor Dayton delivered his initial State of the State Address and the high points deserve mention here. In his five-point plan, the Governor laid out an ambitious agenda that will certainly be difficult to fully implement given the state budget situation and remarks from the loyal opposition after the address bore that out.

Governor Dayton proposed to invest in five areas: (1) job creation, (2) education, (3) transportation, (4) communities and environment, and (5) transformation of government. The Governor called for an income tax increase on the wealthiest Minnesotans to generate the revenue necessary for these investments. The call for an income tax increase was certainly no surprise, as it was a prominent part of Governor's campaign platform.

Increasing funding for education in each year he will serve as governor with "no excuses and no exceptions" was also part of Governor Dayton's campaign platform and he reiterated that commitment in yesterday's speech. In his speech, he also called for reform and special attention to early childhood education issues and full funding of all-day kindergarten in every school district in Minnesota. The price tag, at least the last time I looked, for all-day kindergarten is in the neighborhood of $160 million.

All-day kindergarten is a great idea, but as I am wont to do, I always have to add a caveat or two to pretty much any proposal. Studies show the value of all-day kindergarten, but it's important to keep elementary class-sizes manageable and teaching techniques fresh in the early grades to maintain the benefits an all-day kindergarten program provides. Further, all-day kindergarten may be difficult to implement in districts with space problems, many of whom are either growing districts or districts that have difficulty passing bond referenda. Even with these difficulties, all-day kindergarten needs to be discussed as a valuable, research-based contribution to higher achievement levels for all children and as at least a partial solution to closing the achievement gap.

Governor Dayton also called for the re-establishment of the Governor's Council on Early Childhood Education and the Children's Cabinet. He also called for greater sharing of successful learning strategies developed by individual school districts.

Reaction from legislative leadership was pretty much as expected, with a few twists. The overall theme expressed by Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch (R-Buffalo) and Speaker of the House Kurt Zellars (R-Maple Grove) was that Governor Dayton is "looking backward, not forward." Clearly, some of Governor Dayton's proposals evoke a Minnesota of a generation ago. To some extent, that may overlook current challenges Minnesota is facing in an increasingly global economy, but it also marks a call for needed discussion of what Minnesota "means" for lack of a better term.

I'm a professional quibbler and I've always quibbled with the term "tax and spend." All government is spending that is funded through some type of financial contribution from the general public, whether that revenue comes in the form of fees or from the wide array of taxes that are implemented by governments everywhere. I've always thought it is important to dig deeper than the simplistic term "tax and spend" and get to the heart of which taxes will be implemented and where the incidence of these taxes should fall. It's a complex discussion and one that begs for a shared vision of taxation.

The same thing goes for spending. One would hope that a comprehensive and shared vision of what services Minnesota should provide its citizens and the level at which they should be provided can be developed. It does call for "investment," another term used by the Governor that arched an eyebrow or two amongst the loyal opposition. "Investment" does connote a measure of expenditure and the Governor was short on details as to whether all of the revenue he needed to fund his proposed investments would come from new revenue or if some of it would come from re-allocation of revenue already in the system to more efficient and effective methods.

I believe the most pertinent point raised by Majority Leader Koch and Speaker Zellars is that we do live in a Minnesota that is ever-changing and that many of the circumstances that currently exist call for the development of solutions that fit these circumstances. That certainly calls for a need to be creative about how, and how much, we tax and how, and how much, we spend as a state. Much of what was accepted as the conventional wisdom in the post-World War II era needs to be re-examined and I trust that the discussion moving forward between the Governor and the Legislature will be illuminating.

The differences in worldview that exist between these two branches of government are becoming more apparent, but I believe that a level of comity can be reached. It is going to take awhile, but ever the optimist (which is really difficult for a Scandinavian), I believe an accord on what constitutes a new vision for Minnesota can be reached.

State of the State Links

PS--Governor Dayton took a swipe at how state government was run under the Pawlenty administration. Here is former Governor Pawlenty's response:

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