What is the role of Minnesota government?

One of the most valuable aspects of the current gubernatorial campaign is it’s leading to a necessary discussion on the role of government. There’s nothing wrong with the country today that a good civics lesson can’t cure.

Today, for example, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer appeared at the Humphrey Institute’s candidate forum — Mark Dayton was there the other day and Tom Horner will be there Monday — and offered a comprehensive view of his vision for Minnesota’s education future. It was a terrific discussion, as was Dayton’s.

Invariably, the talk turned to the role of government and as he’s done before, Rep. Emmer noted that the Minnesota Constitution requires government to provide two things: Public safety and education.

I couldn’t find the specifics until my Republican friends on Twitter called my attention to Article 13, Section 1 (under the category of “miscellaneous subjects.”


UNIFORM SYSTEM OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.

In that same section, then, it says the role of government is to provide lotteries, give bonuses to veterans, and preserve hunting and fishing.

Rep. Emmer’s suggestion — he’s used the line many times — is that the role of government is quite limited and spelled out in the Constitution; anything beyond that is a promise our constitution never made.

If we are to use the Minnesota Constitution as our guide on this question, however, the water gets more muddied. One might suggest that the writers of Article I intended it to be a clearer direction than Article 13.

Here’s Article 1:


Section 1. OBJECT OF GOVERNMENT. Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people, in whom all political power is inherent, together with the right to alter, modify or reform government whenever required by the public good.

Question: Of the many things government provides — often over the objection of others — which of them don’t fit such a vague description?

It may well be that the Constitution provides no clear guidance on the role of government in our lives, which puts the question squarely back in our own laps: What do we want it to be?

  • Alison

    Would the 6th Ammendment to the US Constitution be one that the state must also provide for, given that we have criminal laws?

    “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense. ”

    This isn’t one of Mr. Emmer’s 2 enumerated responsibilities. However it is one responsibility that many would contend our state is shirking due to the inadequate funding that our state court systems are getting.

  • Colin

    I would argue that the key revelation of Article 1 section 1 is that the public good is paramount. Minnesota’s government is meant to be a rising tide that lifts all boats, not just lavish luxury yachts or leaking life rafts. As a general principle, it means that the actions of government must be proven to improve Minnesota’s economy or standard of living in a way that everyone benefits. Passing regressive income tax cuts and sales tax increases when our tax system is already regressive only makes sense if you can definitively prove the trickle-down myth. By providing quality infrastructure and education, our state government improves life for all Minnesotans.

  • Zebulun

    The original state constitution was a product of its time, and as such, had to evolve with changing situations. Compare Article I with Article XIV. Feudalism is prohibited. Trunk highways are required.

    Adopted October 13, 1857 * Generally revised November 5, 1974

    Further amended November 1974, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1990, 1996, 1998, 2006 and 2008.

    With apologies to Justice Scalia, the Constitution is not dead. The role of government is whatever the current living and breathing citizens say it is.