The 15 or so St. Paul residents gathered upstairs at the Highland Park community library last night didn’t solve the state’s $6 billion budget gap.
But they took a healthy run at it, one worth paying attention to.
Guided through a handful of questions about priorities and armed with “clickers” to record their thoughts and provide instant group feedback, they asked themselves why the state has a history of budget shortfalls. They looked at expected growth in long-term care costs. They thought about where Minnesota could spend less money and under what conditions, if any, higher taxes might be called for.
Where could more spending result in economic growth? Where could reform of state operations cut spending without hurting services?
When somebody said the presence of eagles in the Twin Cities showed how well the environment was doing, somebody else noted that a canoe trip on the Mississippi might make you think otherwise. In the midst of talk about the value of higher education, one resident noted that perhaps it’s a good thing to make students bear a greater share of the cost.
There were silences; there were moments of people talking over others. There were conservatives; there were liberals. There were people just getting by; there were people who expect to be comfortable the rest of their lives.
After two hours, the group put their chips on the table, literally, setting priorities for where they think Minnesota can cut spending, reform services and perhaps even raise taxes. But in the end, it wasn’t the result so much as the conversation that seemed valuable.
It’s a conversation anyone in the state can get in on in the next few weeks.
The Citizens League, which guided the session, is holding a couple dozen of these budget conversations between now and mid-December and expects to take what it learns to the new governor and Legislature in January. There’s one Thursday evening, for example at the Logan Community Center in Northeast Minneapolis. You can find the full list, see results of the sessions held so far and join an online discussion at the Citizens League CitiZing site.
If you go, and you should, don’t worry about falling asleep while a speaker drones on pointing at graphs and pie charts. At Tuesday’s session, facilitator Stacy Becker did indeed have a few numbers to share about where Minnesota’s money goes and what the tax burden looks like. But the beauty of the conversation was the ability of the 15 residents to engage with their neighbors, see in real time the variety of opinion in the room and perhaps start to figure out how to find some common ground.
It was a process carried out with civility and good cheer and cookies. And who knows, someone might be listening.