Fix disparities, practice "radical
localism", repair legislative process
(Thissen withdrew from the gubernatorial race on Feb. 7, 2018.)
A Civic Caucus
Interview January 5, 2018
John Adams, Steve Anderson,
Janis Clay (executive director), Paul Gilje, Randy Johnson, Ted
Kolderie, Paul Ostrow (chair), Dana Schroeder (associate director),
DFL Gubernatorial candidate
and State Rep. Paul Thissen says if he were elected governor, he'd
most like to move Minnesota from being the second most unequal state
in disparities--especially racial disparities--to having policies in
place where equity is a reality. He believes we need a new set of
agreements about what it means to have economic security in
Minnesota: affordable health care; available and affordable child
care, especially in Greater Minnesota; affordable housing; access to
higher education; and retirement security.
Thissen says we need "radical localism" at
the state level. State government should set goals and standards,
provide support and accountability and then let local communities
figure out how to achieve those goals. Currently, the state often
tries to dictate what local communities should do down to minute
details. He says we should free up local communities and governments
to do a lot more.
Thissen says transparency is the biggest
thing we need to fix at the Legislature to take some of the poison
out of our politics. Too much happens at the last minute and behind
closed doors. He says we need to get back to an empowered committee
process, where legislators can dive into issues and the committee
process is respected. He says conference committee meetings should
be public and end-of-session negotiations between the governor and
the Legislature should either be held publicly or made available to
Thissen has a bill that would require the
Legislature to abide by Minnesota's Data Practices and Open Meeting
laws. The bill also attempts to better define the single-subject
rule, a state Constitutional requirement that all legislative bills
be restricted to one subject. He says the governor could decide not
to sign a bill if the Legislature has not followed transparent
Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis)
represents District 61B in the Minnesota House and is a candidate
for governor of Minnesota. He was first elected to the House in 2002
and has been re-elected ever since. He has said he will be retiring
from the House in January 2019, at the end of his current term.
Thissen served as Speaker of the House
from 2013 to 2015 and as House Minority Leader from 2011 to 2013 and
from 2015 to 2017. He served as chair of the Health and Human
Services Committee from 2007 to 2010. He currently serves on the
following House committees: Education Finance; Job Growth and Energy
Affordability Policy and Finance; and Legacy Funding Finance.
While Thissen was Speaker, the Legislature
passed the first significant investment in early childhood education
in Minnesota history; all-day, every-day kindergarten for every
five-year-old in the state; a two-year tuition freeze for public
college and university students; and the Women's Economic Security
Act. The Legislature also raised the minimum wage, legalized
same-sex marriage, created the broadband investment program and
enacted a first-in-the-nation solar energy standard.
Thissen is a graduate of Academy of the
Holy Angels High School in Richfield, Minn., and earned a bachelor's
degree from Harvard University in 1989 and a law degree from the
University of Chicago Law School in 1992. He served as editor of the
University of Chicago Law Review.
After law school, Thissen clerked for the
Honorable James B. Loken of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth
Circuit and then worked for the Minnesota State Public Defenders
Office. He also worked as a partner at two major Minnesota law
In 2006, Thissen was named one of "Forty
Under 40" top business professionals in the Twin Cities by Twin
Cities Business Journal. In 2008 and 2013, he was recognized as
one of "100 Influential Minnesotans in Health Care" by Physician
Magazine and named one of the Twin Cities' "Best Brains" in
Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine.
Continuing its focus on
Minnesota's competitiveness, since September 2015, the Civic Caucus
has been undertaking a review of the quality of Minnesota's
public-policy process for anticipating, defining and resolving major
community problems. On November 27, 2016, the Caucus issued a report
based on that review, Looking
Back, Thinking Ahead: Strengthening Minnesota's Public-Policy
As part of that look at Minnesota's
public-policy process, the Civic Caucus began a series of interviews
in October 2017 with major, announced candidates for the office of
governor of Minnesota.The interviews are centered on what can be
done to keep Minnesota and its people competitive in a number of
realms. This interview with State Representative Paul Thissen is the
sixth in that series.
Gubernatorial candidate and State Rep.
Paul Thissen said there are three major things Minnesota needs to
1. We need a new set of agreements about
what it means to have economic security for families and individuals
in Minnesota. Thissen said that's especially important because
the economy is changing rapidly. He listed several important issues
related to economic security:
Access to reliable, affordable health care;
Availability and cost of child care, especially in Greater
Availability of affordable housing;
Access to higher education; and
2. We need to close the disparities in
Minnesota, particularly the racial disparities. Thissen said we
must meet that challenge head on and do it in an intentional way or
we won't make the progress we need to make. He said the thing he'd
most like to do over the next eight years is to move Minnesota from
being the second most unequal state to having policies in place
where equity is a reality. "That would be a tremendous legacy for us
if we actually lift everybody up," he said.
3. On the political side, people still
feel very disconnected, like they don't have a voice. Thissen
said people feel very disconnected and like they don't have any
control over their destiny both politically and economically.
"Figuring out how to reengage them is an important job of the
governor," he said.
Some of that, he said, is rethinking state
government to make it more localized. "State government should take
the role of setting an agenda, expectations and providing
resources," he said. "It should let local communities have much more
control of the details of how they get there, instead of the state
dictating the details down to the very minute level. How do we
empower people again to feel like they have control of their own
political and economic destiny?"
Early childhood and K-12 education.
We must invest more resources in early
childhood education to make it more affordable and to give childcare
centers more resources. In response to an interviewer's question
about the challenge of people getting their children to quality
childcare, Thissen suggested that perhaps child-care centers could
He said we should rethink transportation
as part of what we offer people for their economic security. We
could offer access to transportation subsidies, in the same way we
offer subsidies for health care and childcare, he said. It would be
part of a holistic approach.
In 2003, the Legislature was facing a
deficit and it cut child-care subsidies and aid to local governments
to balance the budget, he said. "We've never recovered from that."
How do we get the best and brightest back
into the education field? An interviewer asked that question and
said people with college degrees who are in the education field have
the lowest salaries relative to other people with college degrees.
Thissen responded that lower salaries are a problem in many areas of
public employment, such as IT. "A piece of raising those salaries is
preserving the benefits, like pensions, that have offset the lower
salaries," Thissen said.
How do we get more teachers of color in
our classrooms? Thissen asked that question and said teachers of
color come in and then leave the field of teaching much more rapidly
than white teachers do. Part of it is money, he said. But also, they
don't feel they have a say in what they do and are able to exercise
their professional judgment. Some research, he said, shows that many
teachers of color come to teaching even more mission-driven and when
they don't see the ability to have a voice in what that profession
looks like, they leave. "We're too top down about how teachers have
to operate," he said.
There is an economic standpoint, Thissen
said, but if we can free up the teachers to have more say in the
curriculum, we'd attract more of the best and brightest to teaching.
The biggest challenge to transit is that
there is no dedicated funding scheme for it. Thissen pointed out
that according to the Minnesota Constitution, gas tax revenues can
only go to roads and bridges. An interviewer noted that fare-box
revenues only fund 30 percent of the operating cost of transit. The
interviewer said downtown Minneapolis is changing from an employment
center to a place to live and there is a disconnect between how the
region is developing and how we're thinking about financing transit.
"The Metropolitan Council is not speaking to the region's
realities," the interviewer said.
Thissen responded that the networks we
develop are hub and spoke, but how can we finance transit so that
it's not hub and spoke? "How do we get people from North Minneapolis
to Shakopee for Amazon jobs?" he asked. Perhaps the employers should
pay a share of transit costs.
The same interviewer said the cost of
Metro Mobility, transit for elderly and disabled people, is
exploding. Thissen agreed that it is a big pull in the budget. He
asked whether transportation in some senses should be treated more
as a social service rather than as part of the transportation
budget. "There's a huge missing need," he said.
State Planning Agency.
We have to have something in place like
the State Planning Agency, which was formed in 1965 and abolished in
2003. Thissen said he voted against getting rid of the State
Planning Agency in 2003, but it was eliminated. He said the Planning
Agency doesn't necessarily have to be the same as it was and could
tap into the work of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School
of Public Affairs and a number of foundations doing this kind of
work. But having at least a core of people in a planning agency
looking across the other state agencies would make a big difference,
He would focus the Planning Agency's work
on workforce development and closing the racial opportunity gaps. He
said the governor should have the power to direct which issues the
Planning Agency works on.
The obstacles to reinstating the State
Planning Agency are fiscal and ideological. "Is this the best
use of resources?" Thissen asked. "We'll have to make that case."
Gaps and Disparities.
Places that are growing steadily, like the
Twin Cities, are magnets for people to come from other places to
improve their lives. An interviewer made that statement,
following up on Thissen's earlier statement that what he would most
like to do as governor is close the racial disparities and gaps in
Minnesota. The interviewer pointed out that many of the people who
are arriving are at the lower end of the social-economic ladder.
Places that are stagnant have fewer gaps than places that are
growing, the interviewer said. That magnifies the gaps in places
like the Twin Cities. The interviewer then asked what policy options
can tackle the fact that there are so many people who are poor, by
getting at the root problems in a realistic way,
The most hopeful things are the Northside
Achievement Zone in North Minneapolis, the Promise Neighborhood in
St. Paul, and similar programs in Northfield, Austin, Red Wing and
St. Cloud. Thissen said he likes the hub idea these programs
use. "They're not necessarily spending more money, but they're
harnessing resources in a different way," he said. "It's also the
idea that every child in that neighborhood is going to college and
you figure out how to get them there. You set expectations early.
You make it a family-driven process. It's driven by the community
and it's flexible, depending on where it is."
There's a gap between what's offered on
the supply side by higher education institutions and what's needed
on the demand side. An interviewer made that observation and
said many students coming from K-12 schools are not ready for higher
education. He asked whether higher education institutions should
change what they're doing in order to meet people who show up on our
campuses unable to do regular college work. Or, the interviewer
asked, should we go back and ask what we're getting for spending
$21,000 per student, per year in the Minneapolis Public Schools?
One of the huge drivers of college debt is
people having to pay for remedial education at the college level
that they should have gotten for free when they were in public K-12
schools. Thissen made that remark and asked whether we should
charge back some of those costs to the K-12 schools, so the students
are not picking up the whole cost. Students having to pay for their
own remedial education is one of the most unfair parts of the
education system, he said.
Thissen said there are some successful
programs, like the
federal TRiO programs,
which are federal
outreach and student services programs designed to identify and
provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.
TRiO includes eight programs targeted to serve and assist low-income
individuals, first-generation college students and individuals with
disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle
school to post-baccalaureate programs.
TRiO helps students in their first year of
college by focusing on academic achievement and the challenges of
transitioning to college, Thissen said. Students who've participated
in TRiO during their first year in college go on to provide
mentoring to succeeding first-year students.
The cost of higher education will come
down as technology changes. Thissen gave that response to an
interviewer's question about why higher education is so expensive.
Thissen said new technology should allow one professor to teach more
students. He cautioned, however, that in making higher education
affordable for people, we have to be careful to retain a strong
research university, as successful places like San Francisco, Boston
and North Carolina have. "That takes a different kind of investment
that I think we ignore in Minnesota," he said.
Characteristics and Role of the
What are the characteristics that people
should look for as they select a candidate for governor? An
interviewer asked that question and Thissen responded with several
Get beyond particular issues and
look at the candidate's underlying understanding of what's going on
in our economy and our politics. We need a shared understanding of
what the larger picture is.
Look at the candidate's record of
going into the arena and not just fighting about things, but
actually delivering by getting things done. Thissen said that's what
sets him apart in this race.
Look for a history of the
candidates standing up for their values and doing what they have to
do. But they should also know when to walk away with enough, instead
of fighting for the very last little bit of what they can gain in a
Thissen said getting Minnesota from the
second most unequal state to no disparities is the one big thing
he'd like to do as governor. We need to look at our shared idea
of what's going on in Minnesota, Thissen said, and what is really
driving our economy and politics. There is a growing concentration
of economic and political power in the country and the state and
that drives racial, gender, geographic and economic divides. "It
doesn't allow people to see each other and stratifies society," he
said. "We don't see the same reality. The governor must describe the
larger reality of what's going on."
We'd be better off if the federal
government would cut a lot of strings in programs like health care
and would fund block grants to the states at the level we need.
Thissen gave that response to an interviewer's question about
whether Democrats should continue to pursue the new nationalism that
President Teddy Roosevelt supported. Under that concept, policies
run up to the federal executive branch and come back down in the
form of regulations and grants, the interviewer said.
Thissen said when the Republicans tried to
move health care to block grants, they would have cut a lot of
strings, but they also would have made a large cutback in the
funding. He stressed that funding has to be adequate for states if
health care were to move to a block grant program.
Thissen also mentioned that in the
administration's move to get rid of net neutrality regulations,
states are preempted from taking any action on their own. He said he
and Rep. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) will try to bring some action
on net neutrality to the state level during the upcoming legislative
We need radical localism at the state
level. Often, Thissen said, the state tries to dictate what
local communities should do, down to minute details. "It creates
political controversy that we don't need and it creates bad
public-policy outcomes," he said. "What works in Minneapolis doesn't
necessarily work in Elbow Lake."
"If we could rethink our state government
so that it's about setting standards, providing support, and
providing accountability and let local communities figure out how to
achieve those goals, we'd be a lot better off," Thissen continued.
He said the state's broadband program was designed that way. And he
has a proposal to create regions in the state that would decide
what's best to do in early childhood in their own region, with the
state providing the resources to do those things.
Thissen said there should be national
enforcement of things like human rights. But for more mechanical
policies, we could free up local communities and governments to do a
lot more. When asked what the local community would be in the Twin
Cities, Thissen said it would probably be the regional community.
How can we get things done in today's
poisonous political climate? An interviewer asked that question
and Thissen responded with two recommendations:
We need to empower outside
groups to do more policy work, including citizen boards.
The biggest thing we need is
transparency. Thissen said so much happens at the Legislature at
the last minute and behind closed doors. He said we need to get back
to an empowered committee process, where legislators can dive into
issues and where the committee process is respected. Conference
committee meetings should be public. End-of-session negotiations
between the governor and the Legislature should either be held
publicly or made available to the public. "What you say in public is
going to be much more reasonable than what you say behind closed
doors," Thissen said.
"If we could get back to a strong
committee process and back to a transparent process, we could take
some of the poison out of our politics," he said. "The other thing
we need to do is to get big money out of our politics."
Thissen has a bill in the Legislature now
that would require that the Legislature abide by Minnesota's Data
Practices and Open Meeting laws. Currently, Thissen said, the
Legislature can ignore those laws, which apply to other levels of
government. He said the bill also includes a provision to try to
better define the single-subject rule, a state Constitutional
requirement that all legislative bills be restricted to one subject.
The governor can decide not to sign a bill
if the Legislature has not followed transparent policies.
Thissen said that might be one way to force the Legislature and the
governor to step up and do what's right. He noted that earlier in
his legislative career, he voted on a lot more bills each session
than are coming up for votes currently, because there was better
adherence to the single-subject rule.
Who should take the leadership in
improving the legislative process? An interviewer asked that
question and Thissen said it has to be the rank-and-file
legislators, the governor, and citizens who care about the issue. He
said more and more people do care about it. "I think there is hope,"
he said. "It will have to be forced on the legislative leadership,
because the current system is where their power comes from."
Ultimately, a single-payer health care
payment system makes a lot more sense than what we have today.
Thissen said one of the big challenges in health care is that we've
broken into pools that are too small. While a single-payer system
makes more sense, whether we can achieve that on the state level or
whether it has to be national is open to question, he said. "But who
pays for it is really only the beginning of the question," he said.
The health care delivery system is really
what we have to get after. "How do we provide a delivery system
that's not just individual actors acting in a marketplace to serve
people?" Thissen asked. "We need to figure out incentives so they
can cooperate, so the social services, mental health, as well as the
direct care services, are all working together. There is a lot of
great work going on at the community level. Communities are figuring
it out. But we need to continue to push hard on that piece."
It's a fabulous idea to deliver health and
other social services to children and families through the community
school. Thissen said it's a matter of redirecting resources and
working with the private sector. Minnesota's health care systems
have a sense of commitment to the community that's sometimes lacking
in other places, he said. There are lots of partnerships we could
He said we need a change in mental health
services and mental health screening for children. If a school
district diagnoses a problem, the district is on the hook to pay for
special education services for that child, he said. Last year there
was a bill to try to get Medicaid to pay for some of those services.
"That's helped a bit," Thissen said. "But it's a really serious
public-policy obstacle we have to figure out."
Thissen is worried that Minnesota is going
to back down on its commitment to public health, which has been a
huge benefit. He said the
Improvement Partnership (SHIP),
run through the Minnesota Department of Health, has had a big impact
on reducing smoking and obesity and providing a lot of
community-based public-health initiatives. "We need to expand that,
instead of contract that, because it has had an effect on driving
down the cost growth," he said.
We have a huge opportunity in Minnesota
for research and development on solving some big chronic diseases,
like diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. "We have the
constellation of resources right here in Minnesota to do some
incredible work on that," Thissen said. "It would save us money. It
would expand our economy in a big way. I think we should have a
governor who makes kind of a moon mission out of solving diabetes or
solving Alzheimer's--picking one and harnessing the resources for
the state to do that. Most importantly, it would improve people's
quality of life."
The governor's role in solving the opioid
crisis is to convene all the experts to move in the same direction.
That includes the enforcement piece, the alternative treatments
piece, the education piece and the regulation piece, Thissen said.
There's an enforcement piece not only against the people who provide
the drugs, but also against the drug companies.
There's a much heavier lift in terms of
workforce development than we recognize. Thissen said he met
recently with members of CTUL (
de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha),
an organization led by low-wage workers and dedicated to building
the power and leadership of low-wage workers. He was able to talk to
individual members about their challenges with finding affordable
childcare and getting to work.
The next day, Thissen met with a group of
business leaders to hear what their challenges were. Their major
challenge, he said, is the workforce and the fact that we're not
taking our workforce development ideas to scale in any meaningful
We must make workforce development central
to what we do. Thissen said there are obstacles that exist in
many people's lives that we must help them overcome. And we must
bring in more immigrants.
program takes people who've been receiving services from the county
and thinks of them as the future workforce. Thissen
praised the program, which is aimed at adults and also works with
other employers. He explained that the county has looked at its
standards for hiring and how it could use its resources to help
these people get ahead. "It's really changed the county's focus,"
Thissen disagrees with the University of
Minnesota's decision to charge much more for out-of-state tuition
than for in-state tuition. That's moving the wrong way, Thissen
said. He noted that the University of Alabama provides free tuition
to any student, whether in state or out of state, who has a grade
point average of3.5 or higher.
We can't see artificial intelligence (AI)
as a threat to the workforce. We must look at the jobs that come
up behind it, Thissen said. For every robot, there are three jobs
created: someone to make it, someone to run it and someone to repair
it. We have to train people to do that. He said AI has the potential
to lead to gains in employment. "If we could create research hubs on
robotics and AI, Minnesota could be on the cutting edge," he said.
"And we could use it to make our government work much better."
We must have a discussion on a
thinking-forward basis about how to deal with sex offenders.
Thissen said we need to look at how we sentence sex offenders to
begin with and how we do assessments of them as they go through the
system. And we need to create incentives for the treatment to work.
Some people can't be incorporated safely
into our communities, he said. That runs counter to things we'd like
to believe, like mercy and rehabilitation. "The challenge is to
figure out who's who," he said. "I don't think our system does a
good enough job of that in terms of what's going to keep our
communities safe vs. taking a retribution approach."
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