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Progress means healthy economy, good jobs

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The latest state budget forecast showed that Minnesota continues to struggle with the effects of the so-called "Great Recession." The state's general fund revenues are expected to fall more than a billion dollars below earlier estimates for the 2010-11 budget period. The challenge now is to find a way to close this budget gap without causing further damage to a state economy that remains in intensive care.

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As I sifted through the budget forecast documents, I was struck by the jobs numbers. Budget forecasters predict that when all is said and done, the recession will have cost Minnesota more than 150,000 jobs between the first quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2010. Those figures tell me that job creation and retention will be a dominant economic issue for 2010 and beyond.

Most elected officials understand the importance of a healthy economy, but that doesn't always translate into full consideration of how government actions affect employers and their ability to support jobs. As decision-makers in Washington and St. Paul look for solutions to major challenges in areas such as health care, education, energy and the environmental, we need to consistently ask ourselves one question: "How will this affect my constituents' ability to find and keep good jobs?"

For the agriculture and food sector, which generates one of every five Minnesota jobs, this means carefully considering the job market implications as we move ahead on our own list of hot-button issues such as energy conservation, renewable fuels development, carbon emissions, water and soil protection, and international trade. There is important work to do, but along the way we must also do our best to ensure the long-term competitive viability of Minnesota's agriculture and food industry -- and its 367,000 jobs.

As Gov. Pawlenty has observed, Minnesota is in fierce competition with other states and countries to attract and retain employers. During our recent trade mission to Brazil and Chile, I was impressed with the energy and resourcefulness of their farmers and agribusinesses. I came away convinced there are ways we can work together, but I also realized how eager they are to claim a larger portion of global commodity markets.

We need to be mindful of that competitive pressure any time we make policy decisions about how we want our farmers to farm, especially when the policies being considered would increase production costs.

I don't mean to suggest that we place job creation above all other policy goals. In fact, I believe that if we tackle some of our challenges in a smart and creative way, we may actually be able to create jobs as we solve problems. What I am arguing is that the jobs issue must be a very high priority because experts tell us that unemployment levels will remain uncomfortably high for the next few years even as the economy picks up.

The recession from which we are emerging has been a painful reminder that without economic stability, it's hard to get much else done. We don't need to turn our back on Minnesota's tradition of setting high standards for environmental protection and social infrastructure. We just need to recognize that one of the prerequisites for progress in these areas is a reasonably healthy economy with good jobs for those who want them.

Gene Hugoson is Minnesota's commissioner of agriculture.

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