Legislature needs high quality proposals
from outside general-interest groups
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview July 22, 2016
Steve Anderson, Dave
Broden (vice chair), Paul Gilje (executive director), Randy
Johnson, Dan Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow, Bill Rudelius, Dana
Schroeder (associate director), Clarence Shallbetter, Paul
Thissen, Fred Zimmerman. By phone: Steve Alderson, Tim McDonald.
General interest groups
outside the Legislature have played a critical role in
developing a number of important public-policy innovations in
Minnesota, according to Minnesota Rep. Paul Thissen. For
example, he notes the Citizens League's important part in
creating the Minnesota Miracle, groundbreaking 1971 legislation
that increased state funding for local school districts.
He believes that some groups that used
to play a role in making public-policy proposals have become
more partisan. There is a middle-ground space, he says, to be
occupied by groups not pursuing ideological agendas. He laments
the move to bringing to the table all the special interests,
which tend to take over the conversation, leading groups to come
up with already-compromised proposals. Better, he says, is to
allow general-interest groups to bring good ideas forward and
let the Legislature make the compromises.
Thissen advocates for having
general-interest, third-party groups work on governance issues
in the Legislature, helping to put new governance structures in
place, including, perhaps, changes to the legislative committee
He says what makes proposals from
outside groups to the Legislature of high quality is that they
be unique and say something new, that they include a commitment
to do the follow-through to get the proposals enacted, that they
be in areas where other people are not working and that they be
fully formed-on a "silver platter"-so the Legislature can
consider them right away.
State Rep.Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis) is the Minnesota
House Minority Leader. He was first elected to the House in 2002
and has been re-elected every two years since then. From 2007 to
2010, he chaired the House Health and Human Services Committee.
Thissen was born in Bloomington, Minn.
After graduating from the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield,
he attended Harvard University and graduated with high honors in
1989. He earned his law degree from the University of Chicago
Law School in 1992.
Thissen clerked for the Honorable
James B. Loken of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth
Circuit and then joined the Minneapolis law firm of Briggs &
Morgan. He specialized in general litigation and appellate work.
He also worked for the Minnesota State Public Defender's Office.
In 2006, Thissen was named one of
"Forty Under 40" top business professionals in the Twin Cities
by the Twin Cities Business Journal. Thissen continues to
work at Briggs & Morgan when the Legislature is not in session.
Caucus is undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public-policy process for anticipating,
defining and resolving major public problems. The Caucus
interviewed Minnesota State Representative Paul Thissen to get
his assessment of how urgent it is for the State Legislature to
get good proposals for resolving public-policy problems, the
character of a good proposal and what the Legislature is looking
for in those proposals.
Groups outside the Legislature, such as the Citizens League,
were responsible for a large part of the Minnesota Miracle.
According to Minnesota
Rep. Paul Thissen, Minnesota made a lot of progress during the
days of former DFL Minnesota House speaker and Minnesota Member
of Congress Martin Sabo and former Minnesota Governor Wendell
Anderson. Thissen said groups outside of the Legislature, such
as the Citizens League, were responsible for a large part of the
Minnesota Miracle, groundbreaking legislation passed in 1971
that increased state funding for local school districts by
reducing dependence on local property taxes and increasing
dependence on state income and sales taxes.
The Legislature can't agree on what
the long-term problems are that are facing Minnesota.
Thissen said one of the challenges the state faces in the
process of issues raising, issues shaping and issues resolving
is that the Legislature can't even agree on what the problems
are. He believes the process of issue raising is significant.
"In 2003, the Legislature was moving from crisis to crisis," he
said. "There was no long-term thinking. We were lurching from
solving crisis to crisis. We've moved out of that lately and we
must retrain ourselves to think long term. But what are those
It's harder and harder to have real,
direct conversations with constituents. Thissen said more
and more often now those conversations are mediated by
professional advocates. "Often times an advocate-sometimes a
lobbyist-intervenes in the conversation and guides it," he said.
"The way we attempt to solve problems now is to bring all the
special interests to the table. But that results in a move
toward the middle ground, rather than the common ground, which
should be the goal."
Moving to bringing everybody,
including special interests, to the table results in groups
coming up with already-compromised proposals, rather than
allowing general-interest groups to bring good ideas forward and
letting the Legislature make the compromises.
The federal government has strings of
money, which makes it harder for states to be laboratories of
innovation. "How do we fit the state's ideas and actions
into the boxes the federal government has created?" Thissen
Some groups that used to play a role
in making public-policy proposals have become more partisan.
"There's space out there to be occupied by groups not pursuing
ideological agendas," he said. "Such groups could be occupying
that trusted middle ground we're lacking right now."
Political follow-through and taking
political risks with good ideas don't seem to be part of the
process, Thissen said. "At some point we must say, 'Engage in
the legislative process, not the partisan process.'"
Professionalization of the staff at
the Legislature may have led to too little thinking among actual
legislators. "The staff does tremendous work," Thissen said.
"But having third parties come in and fill that space for
legislators might be important. Outside groups could help on
governance issues in the Legislature, helping to put new
governance structures in place."
"It's largely an issue of governance,
a values thing," he said. "How should we set up the structure
through which we make decisions? That's a space for outside
proposals. We haven't revisited that in a long time."
Are there ways we can rebuild our
institutions to rebuild trust? An interviewer commented that
we're suffering from a lack of leaders and a lack of followers.
He noted that in the past we had leaders like Presidents Dwight
Eisenhower and John Kennedy and civil rights leader Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. "I don't see any leaders today," the
interviewer said. "And even if there were good leaders, nobody
would follow them."
"There is some truth to that," Thissen
responded. "Part of it is lack of trust in institutions." He
said we must rebuild that trust by finding ways to rebuild our
Baby boomers and millennials have
distinct ways of viewing the world and the future. An
interviewer commented on a survey reported in Minnesota
Monthly that compared the way millennials and baby boomers
look at various topics. There were lots of differences, but more
in common than we might have thought, the interviewer said.
There is a question about how to communicate with different age
groups and social groups.
Thissen responded that there are
generational issues at his law firm and distinct ways people
view the world and the future. "Millennials are more likely to
carve their own path," he said. "They are less willing to
subordinate their personalities to larger institutions.
Communication with millennials is very different."
He stated that the difference has
partly to do with governance. "Kids in their early 20s don't
want to get involved in politics," he said. "They think they can
solve problems more effectively out of government than within
government. But there is a central question about who brings
It's challenging to get citizens
involved, but also to direct them into discussions with
government. An interviewer asked how we can start the
conversation about how individual citizens can make change,
rather than how elected people can make change. Thissen
responded that it's challenging to get citizens involved. He
pointed to the discussion about racial disparities. "People are
getting involved, but they don't know what to do." They must
also get involved in discussions with government, he said.
The state Department of Health and
Human Services is too big and can't focus on our biggest
challenges. "We have huge problems," Thissen said. "The
aging of society is driving most of the costs. We haven't
figured out mental health. We broke up all the state hospitals
and never came through with community programs. We haven't
figured out the sex offender programs and how to
gethealth-careproviders to Greater Minnesota. Our discussion
about health care has been about insurance rather than about how
we deliver quality health care."
What are the characteristics of
high-quality proposals from outside groups to the Legislature?
Groups should be saying something unique and new in their
Groups should make a commitment to do the follow-through
to get the proposals enacted.
Groups should try to find areas where other people are not
working. For example, so many advocacy groups are coming
forward on transportation. There are longer-term issues that
haven't seen as much focus, such as governance.
It's much better to bring fully formed proposals to the
Legislature that can be talked about right away; bringing them
in on a "silver platter" makes very good sense.
Some good things have been happening,
driven largely by outside groups, in the health area.
Thissen noted three areas: (1) the state has made some
significant progress on mental-health issues. (2) Driven largely
by the federal government, the area of disabilities is moving
more to a community basis and to individual decision-making. (3)
A lot of good work on cost-containment reform was done at the
end of former Governor Tim Pawlenty's term. Then Congress passed
the Affordable Care Act, which focused on insurance reform
rather than delivery reform, which is an area ripe for reform.
The University of Minnesota and other
postsecondary institutions are under-tapped resources. "We
don't use them enough in government to develop good data,"
Thissen said. "We could do better on that."
In the upcoming Civic Caucus report
addressing the public-policy process for anticipating, defining
and resolving major public problems, what should we say about
the value of educating the community? An interviewer asked
that question and Thissen responded that it would be helpful to
provide a historical perspective on how things used to be and
how those processes were set up. He also suggested looking at
what other states are doing.
The interviewer discussed the
important role of the Citizens League in the 1970s, when the
organization produced nearly 100 reports. "When the League put
out a report," the interviewer said, "it almost guaranteed a
legislative hearing and newspaper editorials on whatever the
report was proposing." He suggested that the Civic Caucus focus
its report on a goal once put forward for the Citizens League by
its then-executive director, Ted Kolderie: "Looking ahead at
opportunities before they are lost and problems before they
Thissen asserted that it would be very
helpful if the Civic Caucus report were a guiding document on
what the mission of our community and its leaders should be and
what challenges and opportunities are facing the state.
An entity that has a public-policy
proposal should seek support from other groups. "That's part
of follow-through," Thissen said. Supporters of successful
legislative efforts in recent years, such as the minimum-wage
law and the Women's Economic Security Act, worked to broaden the
base of supporters of the proposals. Then the supporters sat
down together and talked about what roles they would take to
drive the proposals through the Legislature.
He said a lot of groups will agree to
support proposals not in their spheres, just so other groups
will support their proposals. He warned that people must be very
clear about their role so they don't get into a situation like
that. "That has become more of a problem," he said.
We should be delivering more human
services, such as health care, through the schools. Thissen
questioned how to set up the legislative committee structure and
state agencies to enable that kind of collaboration. He's been
thinking about how to structure the committee system
differently. "Instead of having an education committee, maybe a
committee could focus on 25 interrelated problems," he
The Legislature operates way too much
behind closed doors. "That's one of the reasons the
Legislature is not functioning," Thissen said. "We have to
figure out how to educate the public about what's going on." He
said he's very committed to shaping up the Legislature to
operate more openly.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,