The Free Press of Mankato, Jan. 28
Bring on public art debate
The Governor's Reception Room is an ornate setting seen by not only visitors but by anyone who watches the governor giving press conferences at the state Capitol.
One of the reasons the room exudes power is the massive, rich paintings, including several that pay tribute to Minnesota's First Regiment in the Civil War and another that holds the most prominent spot and has ties to this area. The "Treaty of Traverse des Sioux" hangs directly behind the podium.
Gov. Mark Dayton set off an unusual debate recently when he raised the question of whether the most public artwork in the Capitol leans too heavily toward the Civil War era. He voiced no disregard for the importance of the acclaimed Minnesota First, but he wondered if the artwork provides the best overall representation of the history of the state.
At a time of financial hardship for many Minnesotans and the state's other challenges, it's not the most important issue facing Minnesota. But it is a valuable discussion and the governor should be applauded for raising the issue.
Already several voices have weighed in with media commentaries. Some have attacked the governor as being disrespectful to the Minnesota First's heroic efforts at Gettysburg. Those critics miss the nuance of the discussion. No one questions the First's importance in history.
Others point out that it's not just that high-profile Capitol artwork focuses heavily on the Civil War era, but the fact that some of the artwork portrays values of a past era and not necessarily the views gained by the virtue of time.
The artwork of the 1851 Traverse des Sioux signing is a case in point. The lush, glowing painting shows U.S. soldiers and Dakota Indians in a bucolic setting. The feel of the painting doesn't, of course, convey the essentially forced taking of land the Dakota long called home, or the horrible aftermath that was to come for Native Americans in southern Minnesota.
Many point out that Capitol artwork is also deeply lacking in depictions of African Americans, Hispanics, women and others important to Minnesota history.
Striving for a richer, more diverse mix of artwork hanging in the Capitol and other public buildings is a worthy goal. It doesn't mean scenes rich in history — such as the Civil War battles — should be hidden away. Nor does it mean that a tally needs to be kept, such as countering every depiction of European settlement with one of Native American history.
Nor should the effort be one costly to taxpayers. There are plenty of artists and private foundations — as well as the state Historical Society and Arts Board — that could be involved in commissioning and coordinating a better mix of art displays without diverting other state resources.
Public artwork is important. It provides an appreciation of art itself and in the case of artwork in public buildings such as the Capitol, it helps define the history of the state and the values of its people. A robust debate on the topic is welcome.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jan. 25
Make more — or rather less — out of 'Unsession'
Our top legislative leaders say they're ready to make state government better, faster and smarter for Minnesotans. We hope they mean it.
State House and Senate leaders in both parties sound mostly open and positive when it comes to Gov. Mark Dayton's call to an "Unsession" next month to undo laws, regulations and practices that burden people and hinder efficiency.
"Gov. Mark Dayton has a state Senate that's very interested in working with him on trying to find ways to streamline the way state services are provided," Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a Democrat from Cook, told us last week.
His Republican colleague, Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie, said there is no argument about finding things that are unneeded or unnecessary that we can stop doing.
"I think everybody agrees with that," he told us.
But just a minute: "The difficulty is that there are some very big issues that we think should get addressed, as well," Hann said. "They also fall into the category of 'undoing,' notably the business-to-business taxes" passed in 2013.
"In terms of the effect on the public, the biggest thing we can undo in the next session is the harm those taxes are putting on economy," he said.
The state began taxing business equipment repairs and equipment purchases by telecommunications providers on July 1. Unless lawmakers act -- as they should to repeal the measures -- a tax on warehousing services will be added April 1.
Deputy House Minority Leader Jennifer Loon, an Eden Prairie Republican, told us measures that make their way onto the legislative schedule will be "things that probably won't be a heavy lift. They're ideas that will be widely supported and get good buy-in from both parties."
Some examples are surfacing.
"We still have a very well-regulated telegraph industry in our state statutes," said Tony Sertich, the administration's point person on the Unsession since late last year. "I think we can all agree that can go." Sertich, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, is a former House majority leader.
A legislative commission has worked on proposed elimination of more than 30 state advisory boards, councils and task forces that no longer are needed. One example from a report by the Pioneer Press' Bill Salisbury is the Minnesota Nuclear Waste Council, which hasn't met since 1986.
Hann said, "Repealing those isn't going to have a huge impact on people's lives."
Dayton pitched the Unsession as a time for eliminating unnecessary or redundant laws, rules and regulations; reducing the verbiage in those that remain; shortening the timelines for developing and implementing them; and "undoing anything else that makes government nearly impossible to understand, operate or support."
Why stop there? As we've argued, the Unsession should take advantage of the full potential for reform and redesign of state government.
The governor's proposals will be "ready to go on Day One of the session," Sertich told us, after outreach efforts seeking ideas from state employees and other Minnesotans, as well as line-by-line work on statutes by commissioners and their agencies. The effort has, he said, produced "so many ideas -- good ideas -- and so many with strong substance to them."
That's encouraging. So may be the timing.
Reform and streamlining efforts "in the context of a budget crisis," House Speaker Paul Thissen told us, are about "cutting money in an immediate sense, instead of what it should really be about, which is the right decision that will have an impact long term."
Conditions now, with fewer budget pressures and an apparent surplus at hand, "allow us to be creative," the Minneapolis DFLer said, not just about immediate savings but about benefits that could continue to accrue in years to come.
It's an "exciting opportunity for us to look to the future and think about what government really ought to be doing," Thissen said.
We think so, too. It may be too much to hope for in an election year, but lawmakers should indeed be creative in their approach to the Unsession, taking a lesson from the private sector, where tough business decisions about what to continue, what to stop and how to adapt to changing conditions are a way of life.
Will our high hopes for the Unsession will be justified? We'll see, beginning Feb. 25.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jan. 24
MinnesotaCare may be undercut by federal policy
Expanding coverage for the uninsured wasn't the only part of the sales pitch for the 2010 Affordable Care Act. President Obama and other health reform proponents also touted reforms that would reward innovation and quality as states, providers and insurers tackled the task of overhauling our expensive health care system without compromising care.
A looming shortfall in expected federal aid for the next-generation version of MinnesotaCare — the state-run program providing subsidized health insurance for the working poor — raises troubling questions about whether more promises won't be honored as the ACA rolls out.
Obama inspired nationwide ire last fall when his "if you like your plan, you can keep it" promise proved ill-advised. The botched rollout of healthcare.gov also belied claims that buying coverage online would be easy.
The administration can ill afford more questions about the law's rollout, particularly in states such as Minnesota, where the health care community has embraced the ACA's potential. That's why it's critical that the administration move quickly to prevent federal payment policies from penalizing Minnesota for modernizing its pioneering MinnesotaCare program and having some of the nation's most affordable insurance premiums on its new MNsure marketplace. The decline in expected federal revenue is a key reason why the net state cost of MinnesotaCare is expected to increase by $517 million for 2016-17, compared with estimates from the last legislative session.
The federal government has long helped pay for MinnesotaCare, which covers more than 140,000 people and is expected to cost $545 million this year. Enrollees typically make too much to qualify for medical assistance but struggle to buy insurance on their own. In addition to federal dollars, a state tax on medical providers and modest premiums from enrollees funds the program, launched in 1992.
The ACA offered states an opportunity, beginning in 2015, to take advantage of newly available federal dollars to improve coverage for low-income, working families. Minnesota lawmakers last year seized on this to not only continue but to improve MinnesotaCare under the law's new "Basic Health Plan" option. This allows states to utilize 95 percent of the federal tax subsidies that would have been available to people within certain income ranges to buy coverage on the new health marketplaces. States can instead use the money to build a more affordable plan for this group — which benefits providers and privately insured consumers by helping hold down uncompensated care costs. In Minnesota, that plan is the next-generation MinnesotaCare, which typically offers lower premiums than plans available on MNsure to low-income workers.
There would have been a healthy stream of federal dollars into the state had Minnesota's new health insurance marketplace offered high-priced plans. The reason: The federal government uses the second-lowest "silver" plan offered on the state's new MNsure marketplace to calculate the amount of the state's Basic Health Plan dollars. Higher premiums would have equaled more aid.
Instead, the state had the nation's lowest monthly premiums. Among the reasons: a competitive insurance market and efficient medical care. Premiums are also low because more-expensive-to-insure populations were kept out of the new MNsure marketplace — by continuing MinnesotaCare and temporarily keeping its high-risk pool open for people with pre-existing conditions.
The state should be rewarded, not penalized, for its affordable premiums and willingness to pioneer the Basic Health Plan. But there's time and leeway for federal officials to adjust.
The Legislature may also need to act. Lawmakers lowered overall MNsure premiums by more than 50 percent in the 2013 session. Benefits were also improved. Those decisions were based in part on federal aid projections that missed the mark by a mile. Even if federal officials favorably adjust payments, lawmakers need to revisit MinnesotaCare premiums and benefits and ensure that they're sustainable. The sooner they start this difficult assignment, the better.