Public worries over taxes, health care and education

Sean Kershaw
Sean Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League.
Photo courtesy of the Citizens League

A majority of Minnesotans wants more choice in public education according to the Citizens League survey.

Almost three-quarters of those asked say the educational system should offer more options to help students find the right fit. At the same time, only one-quarter of those asked say there are no significant problems with the quality of education in the state.

Citizens League Director Sean Kershaw looks at the survey in combination with previous policy discussions, and concludes the future of education is at a tipping point.

"Minnesotans value public education immensely and they're not happy with what they're getting," Kershaw said. "What we want to do is not lose the public support for public education. That's why we describe it as a tipping point. We've got to fix the system so we don't lose the support more broadly."

While 43 percent of the survey respondents say the quality of education has stayed the same in the past four years, more than one in three say it's gotten worse.

Education is one of several topics covered in the survey, taken in September and October. When given a list of issues important to them, more respondents picked controlling taxes --specifically property taxes -- followed closely by access to affordable health care.

Some other issues like immigration, transportation and improving the environment registered percentages only in the low single digits.

The data collected in the survey will help guide a larger project by the Citizens League over the next two years. The group's leaders hope to ultimately build bridges between everyday citizens and complicated, unwieldy political process.

Kershaw says citizens have a collective expertise on public policy subjects and individuals often have innovative ideas. He worries there is no effective method for decision-makers to exploit that knowledge.

"Pretty soon you add enough layers and you've just got gunk."

"We're not asking citizens to become experts on health care policy," Kershaw said. "We're asking citizens to say in what you eat, and whether you exercise and whether you walk to work or not, you're an expert in that."

The manager of the Citizen League project, Stacy Becker, compares the typical public policy process to wax buildup on a kitchen floor.

"The way we do policy now is -- something's not quite working so we add another layer and add another layer, and we tinker here and add another layer til pretty soon you add enough layers and you've just got gunk," Becker said. "And I think what we have right now in a lot of our policies is gunk."

Becker, a former St. Paul budget director, says citizens sometimes have a clear-eyed view of how to penetrate the gunk. In addition, she warns against seeking public ideas in ineffective ways, such as after a municipal budget is nearly completed. She says that contributes to a general feeling of public frustration.

"It's kind of false to say, 'Citizens had all this input, blah, blah, blah...'" she said. "It's too little, too late -- which is part of the reason there's frustration out there. That there aren't meaningful ways to talk about what's going on." The Citizen League survey grew from some 120 videotaped interviews all around Minnesota conducted by journalism students last summer. Organizers say the anecdotes from the interviews sharpen the focus for the survey's findings.

One such observation comes from Adrian Kemp in Minneapolis, who says he has little incentive to get engaged in the political process.

"Ninety percent of the individuals that represent this north side community I have never physically seen, except inside of a newspaper quoting some large legislation, or the minute KARE-11 News comes out here they all come out," Kemp told the interviewer.

The Citizens League's challenge in the coming months is to reconcile the divergent perceptions of policy and the people who make it into something elected leaders can act on.

One bit of optimism the group can draw on is the survey result that shows nearly 80 percent of those asked believe Minnesotans can always find ways to solve problems.