Monday, September 26, 2005

Making the Grade

In yesterday's Sunday Star Tribune Op-Ex section, the lofty Strib scribes pay homage to a recent report card put out by some group calling itself the Great Northern Alliance (I have not yet been able to uncover yet exactly what or who makes up this alliance, but I doubt it has anything to do with the brothers in Mazir-e-Sharif).

The report card assigned letter grades in several categories and - in contrast to Minnesotans relentless ability to pat themselves on the back - gave the Twin Cities an overall GPA of a B-. While we achieved high marks for "Unique Character and Social Blend" (credit Mandingo with that one), "Values Good Health For All," "Can Attract Talent From Other Areas," "Am Concentrated With Skilled Workers," and "Support the Arts," there were some notable areas of slippage where the Twin Cities specifically and Minnesotans generally should take heed. We earned a grade of D in the categories "Adequately Support Regional Infrastructure," and "Work and Play Well with Others." Furthermore, we earned a C- in the categories "Have Resources to Reach Commerical Potential," "Provide a Foundation for Future Growth," and "Resource Flow." All told, the lower grades stand out more - and are far more telling of the challenges facing the Twin Cities - than the higher grades.

So what? The Twin Cities still tops the quality-of-life lists. We have a highly educated workforce of high-income earners. Our children's ACT scores are among the highest in the country, and we graduate a boatload of B.A. and B.S. students every year from our quality public and private universities and colleges. We have a huge arts network, a huge nonprofit network, and an active business community. Why mess with a good thing?

The problem is, we're not taking steps to secure our position at the tops of these lists and statistics. Other similar metropolitan areas - Denver, Phoenix, Raleigh - are taking cues from our past and beating us at our own game, and they have an inherent advantage in attracting residents: weather (or mountains, in the case of Denver).

Our current political environment - lead most notably by Teflon Tim Pawlenty - does not lend itself to accomplishing great things in the name of civic improvement. As evidenced time and time again, Pawlenty would much rather offer David Strom and the Taxpayer's League a couple dimes off taxes when they repatriate their off-shore accounts than worry about calling on Minnesotan to make a joint sacrifice for everyone's benefit. It used to be - or so legend has it - that Minnesota was a place where Democrats and Republicans could get along in the name of basic civic foundations (i.e. Arne Carlson). The current crop of Republicans, however, poisoned that environment a couple years ago, and will probably pay a poltical price next year.

The Twin Cities metropolitan area is widely predicted to add more than 1 million residents in the next 20 years. This is a fact stated over and over again by experts, but a fact you will rarely heard uttered from a Minnesota Republican's lips. Why? Because to admit that we will be adding these people is to admit that we need to be planning for the future, not merely spending on the present.

Therefore, I offer you a Pie-Eyed Five-Point Plan for the Betterment of the Twin Cities. Take umbrage if you will, but if you will, at least provide your own suggestions for improvement. There's nothing worse than a critic who only criticizes and does not provide his own thoughts.
  1. Put together a comprehensive transportation infrastructure package that covers the entire metropolitan area, and includes Minnesota's other major cities. This will be our biggest challenge: Getting everyone together at the table and figuring out the best way to move people around. It will take a combination of public transportation options and highway infrastructure in order to make this work. It will also take a metro-wide sales tax in order to pay for it.
  2. Fully fund education at all levels. Fun Bobby Bruininks at the U of M wants to be one of the top three research institutions in the world. Rather than laugh him off the stage, we should be encouraging him. Reduce the drastic income gap in education by ensuring our urban school districts receive the support they need, and push math and science to provide future employees for our biotech firms. Do what it takes to make this happen, rather than cutting corners or freezing spending.
  3. Utilize smart growth in order to better develop our communities, conserve land usage, reduce pollution, and ease transportation difficulties. There is no reason Maple Grove and Andover should look and feel the way they do. It's purely bad design. We need to mix our residential and commercial land use and place them close to transportation hubs. Why must we always rely on our cars? It's unnecessary.
  4. What's the deal with biofuel? Minnesota and its neighbors to the south and west (Iowa and the Dakotas) ought to be working together in order to make this region the energy capitol of the US. We're honestly sitting on a gold mine of untapped energy resources in our corn and soybean industries. If we work jointly, we can make more waves nationally, and pretty soon we can provide fuel and energy to the whole country. We need both public and private investment in research and implementation.
  5. Finally, we need to bolster partnerships in the private and public spheres. We need to attract businesses here, and help them invest in the growth of Minnesota. Pawlenty has said that he won't raise taxes because it'll scare away businesses. I say, get the money to build the infrastructure that produces the employees companies want.


Ilya said...

I don't take umbrage; on the contrary, those are some good ideas. But, upon inspection, they might be at odds with each other. To summarize briefly:

1. More roads and rails (which entails raising taxes)

2. More spending on schools (which entails raising taxes)

3. See #1.

4. Attract more investment in renewable energy

5. Attract more inventment generally.

I'm no economist, but it seems that you can probably achieve either 1, 2 & 3, or 4 & 5, but not all at the same time.

PiedPiper said...

#5 is not about attracting more investment generally, but rather establishing public-private coalitions in order to make the public sector work better (i.e. keep taxes low). I don't think I made myself very clear there. Think: A Target Corp. sponsored light-rail station.

Also, yes nos. 1 and 2 required public investment, and the most popular vehicle for that is taxes. However, that is precisely why we need to have the other investments as offsets for those increased expenditures. Investments in renewable energy resources must come primarily from the private sector, which would allow the industry to grow and expand rapidly. This, then, creates a ripple effect throughout the rest of the state economy. If our farmers are doing well, the energy industry is doing well, the other industries follow. Does that make sense?

Also, your attitude in the last sentence is precisely the problem. We need to do all of them at the same time if we want to remain competitive and maintain our quality-of-life. We're either on the Information Superhighway (boy, I love that term) or the slow road to Alabama. Ok, maybe not quite that stark, but you get the idea.

Ilya said...

Given your antipathy toward critics who criticize without offering positive solutions, I should have expected that my comments would smack of unnecessary defeatism. Maybe they so are. But to criticize wholly negative criticism is like condemning beacons for giving warning on where not to sail without being capable of pointing out the correct or best path. Surely beacons have an important role to play, too.

PiedPiper said...

Grow up, Ilya.

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

I don't think transportion expenditures are necessarily a hard sell. Though, it really depends on the extent that it is needed. Here in Northern Virginia where people are generally tax averse, we have sought taxing authority (Virginia is a dillon-rule state, local governments can only raise revenues in accordance with authority given to them by the state) to pay for a variety of transportation projects (widening major interstates, creating an outer ring of the metro, adding more stops on commuter trains). But I don't sense Minnesota has near the congestion problems that the D.C. metropolitan area thus possibly meaning that anything outside of additional pavement will be underutilized. That said, transportation projects do often affect living patterns. Transportation is an area where user fees can effectively be used. HOT lanes, or toll lanes could be built. I doubt people would be too averse to a gas tax in a state like minnesota (though this does aversely affect the poor). Also, light rail could be financed through revenue bonds to the extent that a conservative estimate of use justifies the ability of tickets covering the cost of financing debt (unlikely, though). But public infrastructure, especially, transporation infrastructure is one area where every segment of society benefits and thus a tax hike on that basis, or user fees and bond referendums wouldn't be such a difficult sale. Spending on schools is always trickier. Transportation spending has a traceable outcome (crudely put, miles of pavement laid) but with education there is always going to be a lag between spending and any positive outcome, and the frequent inability to demonstrate a causal relationship between increased spending in urban schools with better schools tends to undermine the argument for the spending in the first place. Not to say there isn't one, there are a lot of good reasons, but merely adding to the status quo doesn't cut it. Which brings us to number 5, the first two in theory should be attractive to entrepeneurs and employers but higher taxes can negate any interest. Ultimately there has to be a positive relationship between spending levels and services for there to be a justifiable reason to move businesses to the twin cities. I do think renewable energy such as wind and other forms will get more burn in the aftermath of all of the energy spikes. This actually may be one of the better value propositions out there for cities looking to add population and prestige. Figure out a way to economically add to their energy infrastructure so as to insulate the local consumers from shocks to the energy market and you will definitely have a selling proposition. The question is can that be done, and can it be done specifically in Minnesota.

Anonymous said...

#2) I completely agree with funding education at all levels, but I don't agree with the goal of the U of M. As a college student who attends the U, the cost of tuition, textbook costs, and student fees is much more of a concern than being a "top research institution." Of course, why fund education when you can fund stadiums...

#3) In regards to Maple Grove, how are the commercial and residential areas not mixed? New development has been greatly focused on encouraging more efficient ways of travel. The 'downtown' area is mixed with townhomes, senior housing, and single-family homes nearby. As far as transportation goes, MG has a transit station pratically in the shopping mall, with bus routes serving all areas of Maple Grove. How are other cities any better?

In general, I think the whole smart growth idea is impractical and overly-optimistic. I guarantee Americans, and specifically Minnesotans, will continue to heavily rely on the automobile, regardless of where they live and what gas prices are like. Seriously, what city doesn't rely on cars? You give me a name, and I will drive over there myself and observe...