There are two pieces of context for
understanding the current work of the Citizens League, according to
Sean Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League:
The first piece of context is the Citizens
League's civic policy agenda. "How do you have impact in today's
environment?" Kershaw asked. There are two variables in that:
- Minnesota's civic infrastructure is not the same as it used to
be. Minnesota was unique in the quality of its infrastructure,
which allowed things to get done. "It's changed and eroded," Kershaw
said. "We have to rebuild this infrastructure in order to have
- The nature of many problems has changed. The problems are
more complex and they're happening in more places, he said.
He explained two tenets of the League's
"civic policy agenda":
- First, every individual has a role in public policy.
Everybody is a policymaker. "How do you build that capacity for
people to govern for the common good?" he asked. "How do you build
that decision-making capacity so they make better decisions for
themselves and for Minnesota? How do you bake that into policy?" In
other words, all individuals have the ability to impact public
policy issues in their daily decisions and public policy should
support this role and capacity.
- Second, almost every issue has a role for every institution.
"What is the role of an institution in policy issues?" Kershaw
asked. "How do the institutions themselves support individuals to be
policymakers? In other words, each institution not only impacts
public policy, it provides a means for individuals to build this
The second piece of context relates to
"We're going to frame a lot of our work on what happens to
Minnesota in 2025," he said. In 2025, labor force growth grinds to a
halt. Economic growth comes from productivity and labor force growth
and we lose the labor force growth in 2025. The little growth there is
will come from migration into Minnesota.
Also, he said, baby boomers will start to
turn 80-plus years old. That's when health care and long-term care get
really expensive. So, in one year, two things happen:
1. One of the legs of our economic
stool is kicked out from under us.
2. One of the cost drivers in
government goes up substantially.
"How do you frame all sorts of public policy
issues through this 2025 lens?" he asked. "How is a particular policy
reducing the cost of governance and how is it increasing
"We've found this may be a good way of
framing issues," he continued. "It's something people can understand.
It's something they can see themselves in."
In looking to 2025, Kershaw said, Minnesota
has to be a place that people want to move to from all over the world
and we also have to do really well for people who were born here.
Given our current infrastructure, it's
harder to have an impact today.
In response to a question, Kershaw said he acknowledged that it's
sometimes difficult for people to have an impact today. "Everything
that happens is defense. It's mostly stopping things from happening.
If we don't rebuild our civic infrastructure, it doesn't really matter
how many good ideas we have."
He said one problem with our civic
infrastructure is an imagination question. On a lot of policy issues,
people look to the Legislature as the only source of the solution.
"For us, a lot of the success we had in the past was with legislative
solutions," he continued. "That's not to say that the Legislature
doesn't matter - it's a critical piece - but I would argue it's a
In the new infrastructure, Kershaw would
like people to imagine public policy not just as what happens at the
government, but what happens in all sorts of institutions.
He said the League's mission is building
civic imagination and capacity. Part of it is to shift people into a
new way of thinking about policy and the role of institutions. The
capacity part is how to get that done.
Kershaw outlined some of the issues the
League is currently working on:
- Tax reform. "We're pushing as hard as we can language in a bill
in both the House and the Senate that would evaluate on an ongoing
basis all tax expenditures," he said. The bill would put together a
commission to evaluate tax expenditures. The League is not overly
optimistic about its passage. Forty percent of the budget is in in
tax expenditures. He noted Minnesota's unusually narrow sales tax.
"We should try to modernize the tax code for the economy we're in."
- Fiscal disparities. "Our stance is 'don't touch it,'" Kershaw
said. He pointed out that the Mall of America is pushing to have its
expansion and part of the existing mall be exempt from the fiscal
disparities law, the metropolitan region's tax-base sharing program,
which has been in effect since 1971. Part of the tax base they want
to exempt would go back into a tax-increment financing (TIF)
district. "It's sort of a case study in bad tax policy. It subverts
the intention of fiscal disparities and it's a problematic use of
TIF. There are many, many things wrong with it. We're pushing uphill
on it. We think it's a horrible precedent to set." The League's
staff is working on lining up cities as allies in the effort to
protect fiscal disparities.
- Pathways to Prosperity. The Citizens League's effort is to move
away from a professionalized service-delivery model of helping
low-income people to a model where they help themselves more and
where they're rewarded for work. "If you think of the 2025 framing,
an enormous challenge for Minnesota is how to make the current
population more productive," Kershaw said. "In all sorts of ways our
antipoverty programs penalize people for work and for building
The League is working with a model that
puts groups of peers in relationship with each other around goal
setting. It could be health, education and/or employment. They get
a small cash reward for achieving their goals. The problem,
Kershaw said, is that the reward counts against their asset
restriction limits. The League is working on a bill that would
remove that penalty for people who are participating in the
The Pathways to Prosperity project has
good support from area foundations, he said. The League pays for
the lobbying part of the project out of its own funds.
- Minnesota Prosperity Act (formerly the Dream Act). The League is
actively involved in supporting the Minnesota Prosperity Act, which
would provide in-state tuition and access to financial aid for
undocumented students. Even with federal immigration reform looking
likely, state action on education access will be needed. With the
demographic and workforce crunch that is approaching, Minnesota
can't afford to create barriers to education for the students in our
- Long-term care financing. Kershaw explained that the League has
a three-part strategy in the long-term care area:
1. Medicaid waiver. The League
would like the Dayton administration to pursue a Medicaid waiver
that would allow a coinsurance option, along with Medicaid,
which would supplement people's long-term care insurance without
requiring recipients to be impoverished. He said the League is
actively pursuing the waiver option with the Department of Human
Services. "It provides a graduated insurance option rather than
the cliff we have," Kershaw explained.
2. New financing tools. The
current reverse mortgage options are not very advantageous,
because the fees are very high, he said. "We need some new
reverse mortgage and savings products and that may require
legislation. We need to work with the financial services
community to devise new products."
3. Education campaign within the
business community. There are tools out there to encourage
people in their 20s, 30s and 40s to start saving for aging. The
League is working with various companies to understand how we
can treat long-term care like a 401K. "We need to give people
better information earlier in the process," he said.
The League was critical of the previous
Dayton administration proposal for $500 property tax buy-downs.
Responding to a question, Kershaw said the League is not working
on the Local Government Aid (LGA) issue. But he pointed out that the
League said that Gov. Mark Dayton's previous proposal for $500
property tax buy- downs across-the-board was not good policy.
The Citizens League involves stakeholders in
both the study and implementation phases.
Kershaw pointed out that in the process of coming up with ideas,
the League is trying to build the support it needs to move those ideas
forward. "This was very true on long-term care reform," he said. "We
think it's true on the Prosperity Act. We're deliberate about the
reality of building as much support from as many institutions as
possible in the process to get it done."
He gave the example of the involvement of
the Chamber of Commerce, Department of Human Services, care providers
and recipients, Citizen League members and others in the development
of long-term care financing strategy. These individuals, groups and
institutions are now advocates for the League in moving the strategy
The Citizens League is focusing on
"There are some issues, like postsecondary, where I think we need
to be really, really active in the proposer mode, because there's a
need for radically different ideas out there," he said. And there are
some issues, where there are lots of good ideas on the table, where
the League needs to be much more in the implementation mode. Someone
needs to focus on moving the ideas forward.
"Right now we're trying to emphasize the
implementation mode," he said. "That's where things are stuck."
Big reform is harder today.
In response to a question, Kershaw said it's going to be harder
and harder to do "these big, one-shot changes," like charter schools
and the Minnesota Miracle. "I'm not saying we don't need radical
Politics is how things get done.
"I don't like this denigration of politics as being bad," he said.
"How do you get things done if it's not through politics?" He's
hopeful, because he believes the generation behind him is less
Should we change the process of deciding?
In response to a question, Kershaw asked, "If we were going to
design a new Legislature, would we design the structure that we have?
A lot of legislators have great ideas about changing the process of
deciding. Not any one of them is a silver bullet. But even people who
were there in the '80s say it's totally different right now and a much
harder environment to get things passed or have a significant impact."
Focusing on smaller policy areas has been
part of the Citizens League's success.
An interviewer commented that those who study public policy these
days often look at issues very broadly, studying whole systems. In the
past, the interviewer said, the League would look at a small area and
educate citizens and figure out how to change it.
Kershaw pointed to the example of the League
focusing on financing in its work in the long-term care area. "I hope
we're going back to that model. The Citizens League is a great mix of
idealism and practicality."