Minnesota Senator David Hann said
the Legislature should not be involved in trying to resolve
every problem in the state. He recalled his service on the Eden
Prairie School Board. In years past, local officials made many
more decisions, but there's been a growing trend to diminish
that role. It is unfortunate, because so many local officials
now feel that making certain decisions no longer is their job,
but that of a higher level of government. That trend is in
conflict with our commitment to be a self-governing nation.
Hann's comments were followed up by a
question from Ted Kolderie, who quoted Harvard's Susan Moore
Johnson about "the larger community represented by government."
Such a comment, Kolderie said, would have been repugnant to
former Humphrey School of Public Affairs Dean and Professor John
Brandl, who always characterized government as a subset of the
community, not the other way around.
To illustrate his concern about local
issues being unnecessarily preempted by higher levels of
government, Hann referred to anti-bullying laws. It is better,
he said, for every school district to have its own anti-bullying
policies, rather than having a statewide law or regulation
imposed on all school districts. The locally developed policies
would better meet the expectations of local citizens.
Moreover, he said, it is distressing
to see the Federal Government preempting the role of state
government. "Now much of the work of state legislatures is being
done by the Federal Government," he said. He noted that is
especially true in the area of health care. "There are very few
things the state can do in health care anymore."
We should help society become more
self-governed. Hann said instead of solving problems in the
community, people are protesting and forming nonprofit groups
that are coming to the Legislature for money. "That's a trend
that should be examined," he said. "Is that really how we want
to be governed?"
We should allow people to pursue their
lives by their own lights. An interviewer asked whether Hann
considered it a major issue that there are racial, economic and
educational inequalities facing citizens of Minnesota. "We don't
spread the great Minnesota experience to all of our citizens,"
the interviewer said.
In response, Hann said, "Our goal is
to make sure there is equal opportunity for all. But some people
have more talents than others; some are more motivated to
achieve. This means people will make different choices and
obtain different results. The fact that people are not the same
is a great gift to society. I don't think the purpose of our
government is to make people the same."
There are many things state
governments are tasked to do and very few things the Federal
Government is supposed to do. Hann said the Federal
Government has gone beyond that. "I think it routinely acts
unconstitutionally," he said. He pointed out that everything not
specified in the Constitution as a federal responsibility is a
state or individual responsibility. Education and health care,
for example, are not in the Constitution as federal issues. "We
have over time wrongly decided to have the Federal Government do
things it can't do constitutionally. The challenge is to try to
put limits on what we believe government, whether state or
federal, can do."
He said we haven't seen many problems
government has solved. He offered the War on Poverty, which
started in 1965 as a federal program, as an example. "Part of
the task of the Legislature is to think about what the things
are we can really do," Hann said. "Now the amount of money we're
spending on a problem is seen as an accomplishment."
He cited the achievement gap in
education as an example of a problem on which the state spends
large sums of money, but nothing ever changes. "Why don't we
acknowledge that what we're doing isn't working?" he asked.
We've lost our way on what our
objectives are in education. An interviewer asserted that
education belongs to state government constitutionally. He
wondered whether there are proposals that would make a
difference in education that the Legislature is failing to deal
with. Or is there a failure to develop good proposals?
Hann responded that we've lost our way
on what our objectives are in education. "I don't think our
education problems are solved by having some kind of magical
programs people need to think up. We've had hundreds or
thousands of those ideas over the years, some of them very
creative. I think it comes down to the question of who are the
people who decide. Who are the policymakers in education? Is it
the people who work in the schools or a group of legislators in
St. Paul or in Washington who write rules and force those rules
He believes a procedural governance
problem is central to the problems we face in education.
"Education is fundamentally a relationship among students and
teachers. And, of course, parents are part of that," he said.
"If we make that relationship difficult or impossible, then we
have problems. The whole job should be to foster those
Hann believes the Federal Government
doesn't help in that, but, instead, puts more barriers in the
way. He said he's visited hundreds of schools. In the good
schools, there are people who have a real passion for education
and who have real power to change things they see that need to
be changed. "When you have people who are empowered to make
decisions, that's when you have good results," he said.
The chartered schools that have been
successful, he said, have worked hard to attract families to
come to their schools. The schools have high standards for
themselves. "School staff members are empowered, because of the
structure of the chartered school, to be able to act on things,"
he said. "It's a government style that needs to be embraced."
There's a very serious divide in this
country, as serious as the divide before the Civil War. In
response to a question about how the political system can get to
some type of unity in its vision for society, Hann said the
Democratic and Republican parties are very different at a very
fundamental level. "I don't know if there is compromise," he
He cited the Preamble to the
Declaration of Independence, which has a very limited view of
government and a very specific view of human nature. He said
Republicans would say the preamble is true and that we should be
faithful to the ideas in it. In contrast, he said, Democrats
would say that things have changed, so those ideas are not true
today. "How do you get unity out of that?" he asked.
"The issues that divide Democrats and
Republicans are not trivial and it's not easy to find
compromise," Hann continued. He doesn't know what to do about
the large number of people who no longer believe in the ideas of
the Declaration of Independence. "If you have a population that
can't agree on that fundamental thing, in what sense do you have
a country?" he asked.
"I don't know what the compromise is
if one group says human nature is the same, while the other
group says human nature has changed," he continued. "It's a
deep, fundamental divide." He called this the root of the
differences between Republicans and Democrats and the reason
there's an inability to find common ground on a lot of
The most important part of education
is character formation. Hann believes we can do a lot of
things very efficiently by using the Internet to train people to
do things like math and science. But character formation doesn't
have economies of scale. That has to involve the relationships
between people and it must involve families. "The real work of
education is to help students understand things like what it
means to be good citizens and what is true about our country's
founding principles," he said.
Good public policy should recognize
the limits of what human beings are. If we don't believe
that certain things are always true about people (e.g., we're
not perfectible), Hann asserted, we try to do things to make
people better human beings. "We've spent a lot of money on
that," he said, "and I don't think it's worked. We've done more
harm than good."
Federal mandates on special education
are unconstitutional. "I don't think the Federal Government
has any business dictating to local schools how they should deal
with individuals who have unique needs," Hann said. The states
and school districts should do that, he believes.
He thinks each child with special
needs is unique and it's hard to say there's a single program
that will meet kids' needs. We do have individualized
educational plans (IEPs) for each special-needs child. We need
to do more things like that to try to emphasize the relationship
between the family and the school in terms of educating the
child with special needs. We need to pay more attention to what
the families believe works. "We need more flexibility in the
system than we have," he said.
There's plenty of room for compromise
in the area of transportation funding. Hann said most people
don't understand how much the state spends on transportation: $2
billion a year, growing at a rate of four percent per year. The
gas tax and license fees must be spent on roads and bridges. The
motor vehicle sales tax goes 60 percent to roads and bridges and
40 percent to transit. They're all outside of the general fund.
"The state could probably spend more
money on transportation, but where does that come from?" he
asked. "The question becomes whether we should spend general
fund money on transportation. Right now we spend nothing from
the general fund."
There's no accountability to the
public for the billions of dollars the Metropolitan Council
spends. Speaking about the Metro Council, Hann asked, "Who
elected these guys? There's a complete lack of accountability to
the public. I don't think that's a good idea. My pet peeve is
light rail." He noted that there was never a legislative hearing
or legislative debate on the issue of the proposed $2 billion
Southwest light-rail line. No legislator has ever voted for or
against the light-rail project. "It's not good governance," he
said. "This is not how you spend $2 billion of public money."
Hann said he favors election of the
Metro Council and said there's no other regional government in
the country with the power of the Metro Council that is not
elected. "Perhaps we should have a Mexit," he said.
In putting together good proposals for
solving public problems, try to devise things that government
doesn't have to do. "Many problems we face can't be solved
by the Legislature," Hann said. People need to figure out: How
do we live together? How do we deal with crime? How do we deal
with the fact that there are no places for people to work in
"People of goodwill should come
together and figure out how to solve things without going to the
government," he said. "That's how good ideas come out, not
through mandating by the Legislature. We do that all the time
and I don't see that we've solved a lot of problems. We've tried
the same process. Maybe it's time to change the process."
He said organizations of goodwill
should focus on how the public can make things better without
going to the Legislature for money. Perhaps there are some laws
that are impediments that we should get rid of.
An interviewer asked whether we're
lacking good, solid, actionable proposals from nongovernmental
sources that could produce results in situations where the
Legislature is at loggerheads. Hann responded that in areas like
transportation, which is an important public good, the
Legislature should be having a major debate.
"That doesn't mean the compromise is
easy," he said. "There are real differences and they probably
need to be argued out. Sometimes that takes a while. I don't
think we're done with this one yet. Do we need more taxes? What
is the Metro Council's role? Should transit be more limited or
more expansive? Those are legitimate legislative issues and are