A Civic Caucus
Role of Minnesota’s Governor
Interview December 1, 2017
John Adams, Steve Anderson,
Janis Clay (executive director), Paul Gilje, Randy Johnson, Ted
Kolderie, Paul Ostrow (chair), Bill Rudelius, Dana Schroeder
(associate director), Clarence Shallbetter, T. Williams. By phone:
Arne Carlson, Audrey Clay, John Hayden.
Minnesota's political system
cries out for courage, especially from the next governor, according
to former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, who served from 1991 to
1999. He says instead of showing courage, candidates today are
constantly running polls and being told what to say and what not to
say. The result is that all the candidates look alike and none has
put forth an exciting agenda for tomorrow. Carlson says we must get
back to a system that de-emphasizes politics and emphasizes public
Carlson believes the next governor should
start out by convening a major commission on the future that could
plan the state's financial future, bringing in all the various
sectors that form Minnesota's economy. The commission should be
independent of the governor, but should have input into how the
state agencies are governed. He also believes we should re-establish
the State Planning Agency, which was formed in 1965 and abolished in
Carlson recommends five fundamental
reforms: (1) Put together a quality sunshine law, so taxpayers know
how their money is being spent; (2) Bring back the Minnesota News
Council; (3) Deal with conflicts of interest in the public and
private sector with disclosure of those conflicts; (4) Bring in
talented, well-meaning people from all the various sectors to figure
out how we can create a better system of government; and (5) Move
the party primaries to June to allow the public to choose the
candidates and to weaken the caucus system.
He also says we should cut back on the
number of staff at the Legislature, forcing legislators to do their
own research, so they know what they're talking about. And he's open
to the idea of using ranked-choice voting in the gubernatorial
selection process. He says the Metropolitan Council should remain an
Arne Carlson is a former
Republican governor of Minnesota, serving from 1991 to 1999. Prior
to his two terms as governor, he served as State Auditor of
Minnesota from 1979 to 1991 and as a member of the Minnesota House
of Representatives from 1971 to 1979. He served one term on the
Minneapolis City Council, from 1965 to 1967, and was the Republican
candidate for mayor in 1967, losing to DFL incumbent Art Naftalin.
During his first year in office, Carlson
battled the Legislature over how to manage a $1.3 billion deficit.
His emphasis on sound management stabilized the state's financial
reserves, restored its AAA bond rating and laid plans for its
long-term financial health.
Under Carlson, the Legislature created
MinnesotaCare in 1992, extending health care to nearly all
Minnesotans through a tax on providers. In 1991, Carlson signed the
nation's first chartered school law and initiated school-choice
legislation. In 1993, he signed into law the Minnesota Human Rights
Act, which banned LGBT discrimination in housing, employment and
education. He also fought to protect wetlands and his efforts to
clean up the Minnesota River earned him the National Great Blue
Heron award in 1995.
Carlson was born in New York City, the son
of Swedish immigrants. He attended New York City public schools
until he received a scholarship to attend The Choate School in
Wallingford, Conn. He is a 1957 graduate of Williams College in
Williamstown, Mass. He later attended graduate school at the
University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Carlson returned to private life in 1999.
He has remained politically active, giving speeches, endorsing
candidates and speaking out on important issues.
with the major, announced candidates for
governor of Minnesota. To accompany those interviews, which are
ongoing, the Civic Caucus interviewed former Minnesota Governor Arne
Carlson to probe his views on the role of Minnesota's governor and
the characteristics a governor needs to fulfill that role today.
Going back to the
1950s, we had certain pillars of strength in Minnesota's society
that made governance a lot different from today. Former
Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson made that statement to begin his
remarks. "We had a very strong partnership, formed by the Citizens
League, among business leaders, who were largely Minnesotans; labor
leaders, who were Minnesotans; the governing system and the
political system," he said. At various Citizens League meetings, a
lot of forward-thinking public policy was hashed out, he said.
"Both political parties were committed to
the proposition that they owed to the community their best and
brightest," Carlson said. He remembers early on being pleasantly
surprised by the amount of talent in city and state government.
"And bringing a lot of that together was a
very enlightened Star and Tribune," he said.
"The Cowles family was among the best owners of a media system
in the United States. "They were really dedicated to the proposition
of what it is we can do to build Minnesota."
Carlson said when then-Governor Wendell
Anderson was on the cover of Time magazine in August 1973,
there was a nonpartisan, unified celebration that somehow Minnesota
was now recognized and that overall, Minnesota could hold its head
very high in comparison to other states. "The focus was on the
phrase 'quality of life,'" he said. "It's interesting that today,
that phrase is not on our lips. We're not discussing it."
We've evolved into a system where we're
managing the status quo. Carlson made that remark and said when
you're surrounded by an environment that is dynamic, you can't have
a government that sees itself as static. "The result is that the
public, in general, has basically concluded that government really
doesn't work," he said. "Therein comes the building of a more siloed
kind of society. The partnership of old, which motivated so many
people both in the system and partially in the system, is kind of
Business leadership has largely been
transferred from Minnesotans to non-Minnesotans. Carlson made
that statement and said, "They see their role as CEOs, CFOs and
board members vastly differently than they did 40 years ago," he
said. They focus on the quarterly returns, he said, and many
employers do not live in Minnesota. "The same commitment we enjoyed
in yesteryear is no longer there," he said.
There has been massive turnover at the
Star Tribune. Carlson pointed that out and said the whole
tonality of the paper and the quality has significantly changed.
"That has an impact, particularly on
holding government accountable," he said.
Political systems have slowly evolved more
toward their extremes. Carlson made that comment and said, "That
makes the environment become less conducive to getting along,
compromising and working together, and moves it more towards a
win/lose situation. We're in the absurd situation today of a
governor fighting a legislature over legislation he signed into law.
And it seems to be irresolvable."
We haven't formed the kinds of
partnerships and participation in government that we used to have.
Carlson made that remark and asked if we can resurrect the
partnerships. "We can't dictate who owns a newspaper," he said. "We
can't really decide how to resurrect a Citizens League. But we can
use government to facilitate the same kinds of partnerships that we
had in the past."
Minnesota will be affected by external
events like the new federal tax law. Carlson made that statement
and said the law will put enormous pressure on higher spending
states like Minnesota, due to the non-deductibility of state and
local taxes. It will make it difficult for businesses to attract
middle-income employees, he said, because people will take state and
local taxes into consideration.
"That will have an impact, in addition to
the normal barriers we have," Carlson said. "If we don't come back
with something that offsets that liability or build credibility in
the quality of our governance, that will become a huge barrier."
He said Minnesota will have to review its
entire tax system. "We must make sure the state spends efficiently,
but how is it raising its money?" he asked. "Is it raising its money
in ways that reflect today's marketplace and that maximize
opportunity for all? We shouldn't assume that if something worked in
1926, it stays on forever. "We need to be a much more creative state
in how we raise money and how we spend money."
Carlson made several key recommendations:
1. We should start out with a major
commission on the future. He said we should bring in some good
talent for the commission. He mentioned people like former Federal
Reserve economist and early childhood education advocate Art Rolnick,
former legislators and people formerly in the governance systems who
excelled, former Carleton College president Stephen Lewis and
retired HealthPartners CEO Mary Brainerd. Carlson's reason for
recommending the commission is that Minnesotans have to be satisfied
that the price they pay for their government is well worth it today.
"It's important to bring back a major
commission that starts to plan our financial future and brings in
the various sectors that form the Minnesota economy," he said. "It
can be done in such a way that the commission is independent of the
politics of the governor's office," he said, "but also has input as
to how the state agencies are governed." He said he didn't think the
private sector would have any problem working with the commission.
2. We should bring in higher education for
review. Carlson said higher education has largely sat out the
enormous pressure, especially on the financial front, for reform.
"The result is that students are borrowing incredible sums of
money," he said. "The liability rests with the students and
ultimately with the public. The one institution that has no skin in
that game is higher education."
We need to make higher education not just
more affordable by saying the taxpayer has to pay more, he said, but
also making it more affordable by modernizing higher education and
making it more relevant to existing jobs. And we need to make it
more cost-efficient in how it administers its own internal affairs.
3. We should bring in reviews of
K-12 education. Carlson said too much of K-12 education is
protected from realities through unions or through management. "The
result is we're not serving children as we should," he said.
He said we must have an overall premise
that we should offer equal opportunity to all children, regardless
of their geography, regardless of their economic station in life.
"Right now, we all know that we have a horrendous gap," he said.
With the Internet, we can explore all kinds of creative ways to open
up opportunities for a higher quality educational experience on the
K-12 level than we currently have. He said we should revisit the
role of chartered schools and the whole issue of school choice.
"How can we better fit those things into
the overall scheme of providing better educational opportunities for
our children?" he asked. "We have to be sure that the children in
North Minneapolis, in Brainerd and in Edina all have equal access to
Carlson said we should be doing more like
the European schools do by opening the doors to vocational training.
"We lead too many students into higher education, rather than into
vocational training," he said. "It's time we sorted out that
issue." We should allow young people to identify their skills and
then to pursue the academic career that will allow them to succeed
in society, whether vocational training, college study or a hybrid.
"It's imperative that we do that," he said.
Carlson said we must put in place the
following fundamental reforms:
Put together a quality
sunshine law so taxpayers know how their money is being spent.
Carlson said it's an issue of transparency and fairness. There are
too many areas of darkness, he said, particularly with regard to
professional sports. "Increasingly, local government is closing its
doors to voters, citizens and taxpayers relative to how their money
is being spent," he said. "You're not entitled to know how your
money is being spent, but you are entitled to pay the bill."
Bring back the Minnesota News
Council. The News Council, which was founded in 1970 and folded
in 2011, mediated disputes between the news media and the public or
government officials. Carlson suggested there are ways government
could put money into the News Council, but clearly stipulate that
the council would be independent. "The News Council of yesteryear
worked very, very well," he said. "It brought a sense of trust
between the public and the providers of news. It had the ability to
hold news organizations accountable."
Deal with conflicts of
interest in the private sector and in the public sector in a similar
fashion. When the conflicts involve government money, Carlson
said, the public has a right to know from a very public disclosure.
"That would go a considerable way toward trying to restore some
sense of trust between those who govern and those who are served by
government itself," he said.
Bring in talented,
well-meaning people from all the various sectors--the private
sector, the labor sector, the nonprofit sector, the news sector--to
figure out how we can create a better system of government. "Government
must recognize as it functions alone, it's not doing all that well,"
Move the party primaries to
June and allow the public to choose the candidates. That would
weaken significantly the precinct caucus system, Carlson said. "That
would be a blessing if we could democratize the process as to how we
select our candidates," he said. "I think that would help draw some
better quality into the system as a whole."
The system cries out for courage.
Carlson gave that reply to an interviewer's question about what the
single most important personal characteristic of Minnesota's next
governor should be. He said former Minnesota Attorney General Warren
Spannaus and former legislator Tom Berg were both very good public
servants. "But their careers were destroyed because they had
courage" regarding the issue of gun control, Carlson said. "One has
to admire that. We need courage."
In a Nov. 28, 2017, letter-to-the-editor
in the Star Tribune, Carlson said both Spannaus and Berg
would have been "superb" governors.
Carlson said candidates today are
constantly running polls and being told what to say and what not to
say. "The result is there's a look-alike to all the candidates," he
said. "I don't see anything that resembles an exciting agenda for
An interviewer asked Carlson how to get
the kind of person he's suggesting we need to run for governor and
how to get that person elected. Carlson responded by noting that
candidates can face terrible, even libelous, personal attacks on
social media that can have an enormous chilling effect. He said we
must get back to a system like we used to have that de-emphasizes
politics and emphasizes public policy.
Carlson said when he came to Minnesota in
1957, he was pleasantly surprised by the enormous amount of talent
on both sides of the aisle. He noted the quality of the debate, the
appreciation for public policy and the understanding of legislators
that we're here for just a short time to get things done.
We should cut back on the number of staff
at the Legislature. Carlson made that statement and said, "the
more staff legislators have, the less they have to know. It's
important that they know." He said we should cut back almost
entirely on partisan staff at the Legislature and make legislators
learn how to do their own research, so they know what they're
talking about. They need to feel the importance of public policy, he
said. "Right now public policy is treated as some kind of a pawn on
(RCV) tones down extreme rhetoric in elections.
Carlson made that statement in response
to an interviewer's question about using RCV in the gubernatorial
endorsement process or primary elections. Carlson said possibly
using RCV in these elections would encourage candidates to be more
compromising in their views so voters would choose them as a second
or third choice.
It would be very helpful if all
institutions insisted on quality, honesty and integrity. Carlson
made that statement and said we've lost sight of our values to a
very large extent. He said the University of Minnesota (U of M) has
fallen far short of those standards in its leadership positions and
there has been virtually no accountability.
He is concerned about serious economic
conflicts of interest at the Star Tribune, where publisher
Glen Taylor owns three professional sports teams: the Minnesota
Timberwolves NBA team (majority owner); Minnesota Lynx WNBA team;
and the Minnesota United FC soccer team (partner). All are dependent
on taxpayer giving. "The amount of disclosure is, at best, minimal,"
Carlson said. "There should be full and total discussion of all
their financial interests and a firewall between reporting and the
conflicts of interest."
Rather than just holding government
accountable, he said, we should look at every single sector,
including the business sector. "All of these sectors must elevate
people who can go beyond the immediacy of their own financial
well-being," he said. "Minnesota has traditionally produced
magnificent leaders in all those areas and there's no reason we
can't do it again."
(LEAP) was a worthwhile program.
Carlson made that statement in response
to an interviewer's comments about LEAP, which was convened in March
1972 by Governor Wendell Anderson's executive order. The program had
three basic objectives: to assist the state government organization
in becoming "more viable" and to improve its efficiency and its
LEAP brought 100 business executives into
state government to help with understanding the mechanics of
management and the delivery of services. The LEAP executives were
assigned to scrutinize all aspects of state government from a
businessperson's perspective. Carlson said the program also built a
greater understanding among the business sector and the public about
how government actually works.
An interviewer commented that LEAP set up
the opportunity for the private sector to learn more about how
government works and for the private sector to share with government
what the private executives brought to the table. "Neither one has a
complete hold on exactly how to get things done," the interviewer
"Anytime you form a partnership, both
sides really gain immeasurably," Carlson said.
We should bring back the State Planning
Agency. Carlson made that statement and said the role of the
agency should be to plan, not to become a political arm of the
governor. He said we should start with the premise that what we have
now is not working very well. "The idea that we could continue this
into the future is really very harmful to all of Minnesota," he
Carlson said a newly returned State
Planning Agency would have unlimited potential. He appreciated the
partnerships the former agency had with the Humphrey School of
Public Affairs at the U of M and the agency's long-term financial
planning for the state. "All of that is extraordinarily necessary,"
Part of the mission of a State Planning
Agency, he said, could be seeking even more
partnerships--particularly to bridge the gap between urban and rural
"In this day of the internet, we have the
capacity to grow more jobs in the rural part of Minnesota," Carlson
said.The metro area, he said, does not need more people, more jobs
and more fights over funding. But we could have more employment
opportunities in the rural areas. "That's one of the things the
State Planning Agency could really do some good work on," he said.
There should be uniform outrage that we
could pass national tax legislation without a single public hearing.
Carlson made that statement and said, "It voids any meaning of
the Constitution." He believes governors and legislators should have
been speaking out about that. "I've been surprised at the silence of
governors on the federal tax bill," he said. They could have used
hearings to mobilize the public.
Carlson said when he became governor in
1991 and the state was battered by large deficits, there was an
enormous amount of sharing about policy solutions across state lines
and between the parties. "It was a very healthy time," he said.
The National Governors Association was
active and governors pushed to bring more power and responsibility
back to the states. But, he said, around 1994, an enormous level of
partisanship came into play and the governors association started to
One of the things we've lost sight of is
that this government is still "We the People." Carlson made that
statement and said somehow we've allowed ourselves to think we
cannot effect change, when, in fact, we can. "How do we galvanize
people in such a way that they start to participate in the process
and define their loyalties?" he asked. It should be nation and
community over party. "Party is a vehicle," he said. "It's nothing
more than a car; it's not a destination. It allows you to get where
In recent years, Carlson said, some
governors have bucked the party and gone straight to the primary and
prevailed. The problem becomes one of money, he said. We should
still be alarmed at the role of money in elections, but in the age
of the internet, the importance of money dissipates. It allows a
candidate with limited means to compete against a person with great
For all practical purposes, the role for
moderate Republicans has disappeared.
Carlson made that statement and said the
Republican Party has become adamantly prolife and adamantly pro-gun.
"I did take them on and I did prevail, but how much luck was in
that, I have no idea," he said. "With open primaries, good moderate
Republican candidates can prevail. I would strongly encourage them
to take the party on."
In the higher education and nonprofit
world today, CEOs feel they can't engage in conflict, because it
harms their ability to raise funds. Carlson made that remark and
said the CEOs feel they can't get involved in the outer world
because it affects their ability to raise money. He said there used
to be a whole host of college presidents who felt it was part of
their role to participate in the national discussion. "We need that
back," he said, "and we're not getting it." Now there's more
emphasis on how to raise big money for academic research and
"We need leadership that has the ability
to put courage and the well-being of the public in the long term
first," he said. "Right now, we're into short-term survival."
Over the years, the appointed Metropolitan
Council has worked extraordinarily well. Carlson made that
statement and said in its first years, the council drew a good
amount of talent. He said that wouldn't happen if its members were
elected. He believes there should be a pull between the Met
Council and counties and cities.
"Each governor should take
responsibility," he said, "for putting up the kind of talent that
the Met Council actually needs--people who have the ability to
broker disagreements between local government and the council. We
have an extraordinary pool of talent that would love to be tapped.
We need people who have the vision, the stature and the ability to
do it right."
An interviewer commented that his
preference is that eligibility for serving on the Met Council should
be open to citizens and shouldn't be restricted to people who are
serving in other elective offices. Carlson agreed.
Tell corporate America that the reason
they should expand in Minnesota is that we give you a good return on
your investment. Carlson concluded with that statement, saying
Minnesota provides good research access, a good labor force, and
access to students and faculty in broad areas of public policy that
companies can use when they get involved in the global picture. "The
pluses vastly outweigh the minuses," he said.
The Civic Caucus
is a nonpartisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics, public policy,
business, nonprofits and government.
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay (executive director), Pat Davies, Paul Gilje,
Rob Jacobs, Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz, Marina Lyon, Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman