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Report: Minnesotans growing more skeptical about state government
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Ted Mondale says he was surprised by some of the survey findings. His group hopes to use the information to find consensus among Minnesota voters. (MPR Photo/Lorna Benson)
Recent elections have hinted at it, and now a new study backs up the notion that Minnesota's legendary progressive politics have changed. The report by the "Minnesota Community Project" found that many Minnesotans are deeply skeptical about state government, and think the state wastes their hard-earned tax dollars on programs that don't benefit them personally. Instead, they want government to get back to the basics like roads and education. These views are strongest in the state's fastest growing counties -- the so-called exurbs that make up the outermost ring of the Twin Cities suburbs.

St. Paul, Minn. — Pollsters for the Minnesota Community Project found a lot of frustration among the more than 1,200 likely Minnesota voters they interviewed for the study. They complained about clogged highways, expensive health care and immigrants. Some respondents said immigrants get too much help from the government and are a drain on the public schools.

The project is an effort of the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. Project member Ted Mondale says voter opinions were very pointed and very clear.

"Somebody is not going to get anything for nothing," says Mondale. "Clearly the government programs that have the best chance of being supported are going to benefit everyone."

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Image Exurban voter Jim Leebens

Mondale was somewhat surprised by that response. But he says it's no secret that Minnesota is changing.

"I think it is what it is. We're in a different time now. We have a changing economy. We have a changing workforce," says Mondale. "Our baby boom generation is retiring and we have a whole new set of challenges that we need to face. One of them is understanding who we are and what is our consensus and where do we need to go?"

There's no historical baseline data to support the idea that Minnesota has moved away from its storied progressive politics. But Mondale says his father, former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, sensed that attitudes had changed and he wanted to find out why.

"My father started this in discussions that he'd had with business leaders and religious leaders, saying, this is not the place it was before. How do we take the steps to bring that back together?" says Mondale. "And I think this research will be helpful to us."

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Image Exurban voter Bryan McInnis

"If they're saying that Minnesota is no longer the state of Hubert Humphrey they'd be accurate," says Jim Leebens, a Republican from Scott County in the southern metro, one of the exurban areas highlighted in the study.

Leebens didn't participate in the poll, but he agrees with many of the opinions that were expressed in it, including complaints about immigrants. He says unfortunately, the political climate in Minnesota is so divisive, that some voters don't want to listen to his reasoning.

"If you're opposed to immigration you're somehow racist, prejudiced, Europhobic, whatever acronym or term you want to put in there," says Leebens. "And that's not necessarily the case."

Leebens says Minnesota has evolved from an agriculture-based economy to a highly skilled service economy and as a result, immigrants today need more training to get jobs they can survive on. He believes it's unfair to use his tax money to help pay for that training.

As for taxes, Leebens thinks they are too high.

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Image David Strom

"I got a paycheck the other day. I work very hard for my money, received my commission checks at the end of the year, and the net deduction from my commission check was nearly 40 percent. My favorite expression is, God only asks for 10 percent. I don't know why I'm paying the government 40," Leebens says.

Pocketbook issues are also important to Bryan McInnis, 25, a youth minister who lives in nearby Dakota County. McInnis says he has to be very careful with his money, or he wouldn't be able to pay his college loans and rent. He doubts state government is as careful with his tax dollars.

"I know there's some excess government spending out there. You hear about it all the time on the news," says McInnis. "And so that's definitely something that I'm concerned about."

The majority of poll respondents agree with McInnis. Fifty-eight percent said they believe the government wastes their money.

David Strom, the president of the Minnesota Taxpayer's League, says the concerns are valid.

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Image Peter Hutchinson

"It doesn't have to do with any kind of crazy hostility to government," says Strom. "They've just looked at it and said it doesn't work."

Strom says he's heard these same opinions expressed many times from many Minnesota voters. In fact, he says they're not new at all. But what is new is the volume of those complaints, and the emerging conservative political power of the fast-growing exurban counties.

"We're talking about the Anoka counties, Maple Grove, the people who are populating the whole strip between here and St. Cloud, Chaska," Strom says. "All of those people have moved into these what were formerly corn fields and potato fields. And a lot of what they're doing is responding to the failures of government, the failures of the urban community to control certain things like crime, to provide good schools. What these people are is concerned parents who wanting to raise their kids in an environment that's safe."

"This is the dominant political split now, I think, in the country. You know, those people who are parents, raising their children and everybody else. And that in a lot of ways is the red-state, blue-state split."

If he was a politician in Minnesota, Strom says he would spend a lot of time pouring over the survey findings.

Peter Hutchinson agrees. He's co-author of the book, "The Price of Government." He was also finance commissioner under former Minnesota DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich. His consulting firm, The Public Strategies Group, ran the Minneapolis public schools for a few years.

Hutchinson says some Minnesotans may find these viewpoints discouraging, particularly complaints about immigrants. But he's encouraged by what he's hearing from voters when it comes to fiscal issues.

"It's not anti-tax," says Hutchinson. "It's actually anti-waste, and anti-anything that looks like it's diminishing the value."

In his work with state governments around the U.S., Hutchinson says he tries to make this point to lawmakers and state officials who are stuck in what he says is an outdated, bureaucratic mindset. Voters don't think that way, says Hutchinson. They're not satisfied paying the same taxes for the same old services. Their thoughts are deeply influenced by life in the private sector, where products are constantly improving.

"Whether it's their car, their computer, their clothes, their food or their government, they want it better than it was yesterday and they don't want the price to go up," says Hutchinson. "And in almost every realm of life, that's exactly what they get -- better cars at better prices, better computers at better prices, better food, better clothing, better housing. And they want to see the same thing from government, and in the last 10 years or so they just haven't seen it."

It's a high expectation, especially for government. And Hutchinson says state leaders haven't done much to prove they're up for the challenge.

"Just the shenanigans going on at the Capitol, people have had it. I mean it's real clear that in this survey and in other surveys that stalemates, political posturing -- that's not taking us anywhere. That's business as usual. That is the politics of the past," says Hutchinson.

"I think the survey is very clear that what people in this state want is the politics of the future, which is about problem-solving and not partisanship," says Hutchinson. "It's about getting on with getting the work done, and worrying less about who gets the credit, and making sure there's credit for people to get."

While the survey found that many voters are frustrated with state government, it also found that most Minnesotans still believe they live in a special place. Pollsters say it could be that desire to keep it special that's motivating some voters changing political attitudes.

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