The gubernatorial campaign finally begins

Most people don’t pay attention to elections until after Labor Day. So today’s announcement from Rep. Tom Emmer of the third part of his budget plan is just what the doctor ordered for a decent debate on the future of Minnesota. And it’s right on time.

Up to now, it’s been about taxes and how much they should be. That’s a worthwhile discussion, to be sure, and it’s not going away. But it doesn’t lead to a discussion beyond sound bites of “efficiencies” in government or even the role of government.

In announcing his budget plan today, Emmer focuses attention on the biggest piece of the budget pie — human services.

Here’s the section of his budget plan (from his Web site) that will be vigorously debated:

Reprioritize unsustainable, run-away human services spending to focus on the most vulnerable.

Left unchecked, health and human services spending increases will destroy Minnesota’s ability to fund schools, roads, public safety, and other core functions. Health and Human Services is set for a 32% percent increase in FY2012-13. If left unchecked Health and Human Services spending will more than consume current state revenue by 2020.

1. Refocus spending on programs for children and seniors which have been historically underfunded.

2. Work with the legislature to reform programs for adults.

3. Health and Human Services will total $9.6 billion; a $650 million increase in state funding.

The details are still to be debated, Emmer acknowledges. “Most vulnerable.” What does that mean? Up until a year or so ago, it meant the poorest, but when Gov. Tim Pawlenty targeted General Assistance Medical Care in his last attempt to balance the state budget, he targeted the poorest Minnesotans. A budget deal this year kept the program alive for 30,000 Minnesotans.

He also says he’ll cut state mandates to cities. Which ones? His plan calls for an end to “bureaucracies and programs which are not fundamental to state government’s mission.” Like what?

Clearly, there are people who will agree and disagree with Emmer’s budget framework. Presumably, this ends the silly part of the campaign —- $100,000 waiters and proposals that campaign trackers where T-shirts — and puts real issues before the voters that will define the candidates.

It also forces us to address a key question: Four years from now, what exactly should Minnesota look like? It also might even lead to the question nobody ever asks. What part of state government that personally benefits us would we be willing to live without?

  • MR

    You’re right, human services is the piece that will get the most press. I think the more interesting debate (and the key question that you touch on at the end) comes in section 4:

    “4. Put state government bureaucracies on a diet.

    1. Cut bureaucracies and programs which are not fundamental to state government’s mission.

    2. Reduce the government workforce through attrition and early-retirement.

    3. Merge agencies to streamline decision making and reduce costs.”

    4.1 is the biggie. What is the “state government’s mission”? His budget worksheet calls for a cut of about $500 million to “Agencies and other state spending.” Obviously that’s not all going to be out of attrition and early retirement. (and as PoliGraph reported, Minnesota ranks fairly low in state workers per capita) Tom Scheck has done great reporting on merging agencies–the last big merger has saved something like $125,000. (I may be misremembering, but it isn’t much more) Which leaves cutting programs “not fundamental to the state’s mission.”

    Talking big picture about the mission of state government could be an interesting and important conversation, though I have a feeling that it would mostly devolve into platitudes and straw-men. I’d be interested in what all three of them have to say.

  • Bob Collins

    You know, of course, politicians talk a lot about how government should be run more like a business, but they rarely live up to that.

    For example, if you haven’t yet determined what government functions Minnesota will deliver, what’s the point of saying the state worker workforce can be reduced through attrition and retirements?

    Until you know EXACTLY what a company’s product is going to be, you can’t know how MANY employees you need to deliver it, right?

  • MR

    Exactly, Bob.

    My prediction: lots of hot air about governmental reform, and in the end, agencies will get an across the board cut, which has to be the biggest cop out in politics. They don’t say “Stop doing these specific things, and save money by not doing them,” they say, “We don’t want to make anyone mad, so do everything you have been doing, but slower and worse because you won’t have as much money. Then we can complain about governmental inefficiency and justify cutting your budget more.”