Minnesotans are ready and willing to cross the great divide
We just need to give them the opportunity and the tools to govern for the common good
By Sean Kershaw, Citizens League
If I’ve learned one thing about this job, it’s that the best policy work always begins with a better definition of the problem. The way we frame a problem determines what resources and strategies we use to address it, and, ultimately, whether we can address it at all.
Minnesota’s budget crisis is bad, and it will only get worse if we fail to make significant reforms. However, the nature of any reform or solution will require the buy-in and active involvement of Minnesotans everywhere. Are Minnesotans able to make the changes necessary to preserve our quality of life and economic health? Or do we simply want more than we are willing to pay for? Are we paralyzed by partisanship?
Our recent experience as conveners of the Common Cents budget discussions sponsored by the Bush Foundation demonstrates that Minnesotans have the capacity to understand the causes and consequences of our current budget woes. They can come together, despite partisanship, and imagine how to achieve the reforms we need. Minnesotans are not the problem.
Organizing and connecting
The Common Cents conversations often began with folded arms and cautious looks, but it wasn’t long before things began to thaw. Under florescent lights in community rooms and school auditoriums around the state, self-described socialist farmers, Tea Party-supporting small business owners, and suburban soccer moms let down their guard, rolled up their sleeves and negotiated with their neighbors over ways to fund the things they value most, those things which, in their eyes, make Minnesota great.
What made these gatherings highly unusual is that most policy and political conversations rarely cross boundaries of ideology or background. We talk with like-minded neighbors and coworkers about people we really don’t know or understand and wonder why they don’t get it. As a result, we misunderstand others’ concerns and motivations and miss opportunities to see that we share the same values and goals for the future. By reframing our budget conversations around the values we share as Minnesotans (e.g., caring for our kids, our parents, and our natural resources), we create opportunities for compromises that will allow us to preserve those values into the future.
Information and conversation
One thing that is standing in the way of addressing our budget crisis is the lack of clear, understandable, and unbiased information on our state’s spending. Most Minnesotans simply don’t have the facts they need, and the information that is out there is often incomplete. We began the Common Cents discussions by presenting information on the scale of the budget crisis and its underlying causes. Then we reframed the discussion. We moved away from the traditional tax and spend debate and instead framed the budget as a statement of our collective values.
Many policy experts think Minnesotans can’t understand the complexity of our state’s funding crisis. We found that is simply not true. No matter how diverse the group, after reviewing just a few basic PowerPoint slides illustrating our structural budget trends, participants quickly drew nuanced and sophisticated conclusions. And at each meeting they expressed a willingness to accept short-term pain if it would result in genuine long-term reform.
Common Cents participants may not have left the discussion agreeing on specific budget solutions (that wasn’t the purpose), but they left with something more valuable: trust and an increased capacity to develop solutions. They left with the realization that those “other” Minnesotans aren’t evil, that they often value the same things, and that they even have some good ideas.
Creating policies together
These Common Cents conversations have shown us that Minnesotans are passionate about our shared future; they share a common set of long-term priorities and they want to play a role in solving our state’s budget problems. Given the right tools and the opportunity, Minnesotans can see past their ideological differences and find common ground that serves the common good. And they are willing to sacrifice if the result is long-lasting reform.
We can no longer rely only on our leaders at the Capitol to craft solutions to our state’s problems. We all share responsibility for how we consume the state’s limited funding and resources, so it is essential that we create the imagination and capacity for all Minnesotans to participate in governing around these issues. Isolated conversations and partisan solutions only create more gridlock. The Common Cents conversations demonstrate how, with better information and the opportunity to work across our differences, we can build the trust and motivation we need to develop and accept the long-term solutions to our state’s financial problems.
This is ultimately what the Citizens League mission statement “building civic imagination and capacity” means. “Common ground common good” is not some cheesy tagline; it’s a practical approach to solving our most important policy problems.