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State Representative Paul
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
April 1, 2011
Verne Johnson (chair), Janis Clay, Paul Gilje, Sallie Kemper, Tim McDonald
Summary of meeting:
The minority leader of the
Minnesota House of
Representatives discusses short term and long term challenges and
opportunities facing the state. He describes challenges with the
current-year budget, and discrepancies between Republican and state
estimates for costs and revenues associated with legislation. The speaker
also highlights education as an area of opportunity for reform, and
recognizes the potential value of continuing informal, bi-partisan
meetings during the interim period in order to work on ideas for redesign
that are brought-in from the executive branch, and from outside
Welcome and introductions
Thissen is a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and minority
leader, representing an area including south
Richfield. He has served since 2002, and from 2007-2010 chaired the Health
and Human Services committee.
He ran for governor in
2010 and came in third for the Democratic party's endorsement. He is a
graduate of the
of Holy Angels
in Richfield, Harvard College, and the University of Chicago Law school.
Comments and discussion
thanked the group for having him in to visit, saying he is a regular
reader of the notes.
needs to be agreement on the numbers
We're right in the
middle of the budget bills-at least the first round-and if you look at
what's happening there are fairly substantial levels of cuts. But also,
there are big holes in the bills.
Before we can move
ahead we have to know what targets we're dealing with. There are good and
bad effects of raising revenue, and good and bad effects of cuts. It also
matters what happens out of the capitol, because people are moved by their
I don't know how it
will end. The governor said it right-we're at two ends of the football
"We can't have a good
discussion about where to lead the state because we're not having a
discussion on the facts," he said, referencing the controversy surrounding
the Republican leadership's action to move budget bills ahead missing some
The $1 billion of the
$5 billion budget shortfall that Thissen feels they're misjudging in their
numbers "is not going to materialize."
Republicans are in a trap they don't need to be in
"The Republicans ran
on the idea that the structural budget deficit could be addressed only on
cuts. They're the ones more than anyone else saying we don't need any new
money. They're stuck with the rhetoric they campaigned on, and are
adhering to the Tea Party portion of their caucus. They're in a trap."
A participant asked
Thissen if he feels in a trap himself with the Governor, who campaigned on
a strategy of tax increases. "I don't think so. We've said all along we
need some cuts, and he's on with that. We're not all the way probably to
the governor's level on the need to raise taxes."
deficit is not driven on the margins, it's really driven by the
demographic wave. Efficiency and cuts are not enough. So there needs to be
what has come to be called 'redesign.'
Proposals for redesign require preparation
talked a lot about reforms this session. The reality is that if proposals
are not ready reforms take time to prepare.
I carried the bill
that moves toward a county redesign. I don't think we should impose it
from the top down. The principle is that instead of the state imposing how
things should be done, we should just say let's figure out what our top
line goals are.
In response to a
question about the budget challenges compelling redesign, Thissen
commented that while Rahm Emanuel has become famous for saying that a
crisis is a terrible thing to waste, "The reality is the reverse."
Right now he said the
legislature is in such a crisis mode that substantial changes have trouble
commanding attention. "It needs to happen at a time when we are not up
against the wall." There may not be the pressures to do it at other times,
he said, but the legislature can't be doing the thinking right now. They
may act but the work needs to be done other times.
interest in innovation and reform. If you think about welfare in the
mid-90's, or Minnesota Care, or the Minnesota Miracle, these were done
before crises hit."
from outside government, and politicians to move them
When asked where ideas
for reform should come from, Thissen said that an active civic sector is
well-positioned to most frequently come up with major reform ideas, as
well as professionals inside government on the front lines performing
work. "The county-payment redesign idea came directly from county
administrators that wanted to be paid for outcomes instead of process, and
the Governor's task forces on mental health and health care reform had
recommendations for changes that gained traction."
He noted that many
ideas come from people in their every day lives. Even so, "You have to
understand this is a political process. That's what we're here for."
A participant asked
how to help keep the legislature receptive to structural reforms as a
class of reforms, separate from their ideological characteristics?
"It would be good to
have an environment where legislators can have these discussions, but it's
challenging. Legislators are not the best people to do that front line
work. What legislators are best at are moving things that need to be made
"A lot of good
discussion has happened in education and in health care. I'd say the depth
of knowledge around the legislature in health care issues has grown
exponentially. This is a citizen legislature-got to educate people at a
very deep level."
legislature is not well positioned to establish a vision
A participant asked
Thissen whether he believes the legislature needs to declare a vision for
the state, since there hasn't been one to come out of the governor's early
"I think we do have
one," he responded. "I'd say the governor sent a macro message-fairness,
building the middle class, wanting to get people back to work-and will
Visions do not usually
come from the legislature, he followed, because they are not set up to do
that. It's driven by the executive branch and by the agencies.
biggest reform for education would be to cultivate plurality
"I have three
children. It's very obvious that they all learn in very different
ways-come to the table with different skills and understanding. The
biggest reform we can do is meet each student where they are, and use
technology or choice where possible.
"It's a different
model from the 50's and 60's where we did warehouse kids. We need to move
away from this idea where education is industrial and warehousing."
Devolve authority to the front lines-even though this can be disconcerting
One of the issues
raised by Tony Murphy in his recent conversation with the Civic Caucus was
that special interests prefer for the parameters of the game to stay the
way they are-keep the rules the same-and argue within those.
"It's the time of
change that's scary." Once the state transitions to an outcomes-based
system for county governance and there are mechanisms in place-to have the
state be a place where people are held accountable-people will adjust to
the new climate.
The potential is so
significant, he said, in enabling those on the front lines to rethink
things, that it the risk seems to be reasonable.
Could this way of
thinking of localizing control be applied to education? "I hadn't thought
of it that way. The big mandate that people would complain about is
testing-maybe the conversation we should have in education is the same
thing we're having in health care: Judge people based on varied
performance measures, and let consumers decide.
Should we rethink how
we assess progress and hold people accountable? "Maybe."
on redesign during the interim
A participant said: I
hope in the process of this session we come up with something longer term.
I hope as you work with the governor you stress that this state can be the
state it was, but requires leadership. If we can get that kind of
leadership working in the session, it could carry into the interim.
"I do think the
governor is thinking at the agency level how it can deliver services
better. I think of human services because I was chair of that committee
for four years. Health care is a place where we can do system change."
What specific areas of
inquiry should the legislature look at for this interim?
The speaker listed
off: "Education funding formula; sex offender population; welfare and
economic development (joblessness); rural economic development; the last
thing I'd think about: is Minnesota the right jurisdiction to be doing
things, or should we look regionally?"
To close a participant
asked the speaker how he was finding his new job, both as a leader and as
a leader of a party in the minority. "I'm new to this job as we all are
this year, and I guess finding the right place between the political job
and the policy job is difficult."
A participant said
that he is curious about the way the word 'reform' is being used. "It
seems things are upside down. The Conservatives are talking about reform,
and casting the Liberals as wanting to maintain the status quo."
The word reform has
been used over time by both sides of the isle, Thissen replied. This year
is a snapshot in time, because the conservatives are in charge. But really
it has been used by everybody.
"That's why I think
you have to get inside the agencies to get it done. Or the foundations or
civic groups." Get more ideas that politicians can work with.
again to everyone for the visit.