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Thissen: Minnesota needs return to compassionate policy

Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Rep. Paul Thissen, center, talks to DFLers Alan Brew, left, and Jim Heltzer, Thursday morning at the Cabin Coffee House. The Minneapolis Democrat is seeking the party's endorsement for governor in 2010, and met with local DFLers to solicit their support.

Minnesota needs to go back to its roots of being compassionate to those less fortunate, says Rep. Paul Thissen, who is seeking the Democratic endorsement for governor in 2010.

The direction of government under Gov. Tim Pawlenty for a limited role for state government and for individuals fending for themselves is wrong, Thissen said Thursday in an interview.

"One of the things we haven't had in this state for too long is a conversation about who we are as Minnesotans and as a people," the fourth-term Democrat from Minneapolis said. "This next election really needs to be about that; it's time we do that. We've been going down a direction for too long that's focused on this notion that we'll all be better off if we're able to take care of ourselves."

Thissen was in Bemidji to hold a House Health and Human Services Policy and Oversight Committee meeting into the local effects of Pawlenty's line-item veto of $400 million to the General Assistance Medical Care program that provides health coverage to the state's most destitute adults.

Earlier Thursday, Thissen met with about a dozen Beltrami County DFLers to solicit their support for his gubernatorial bid.

"We need to come back to what I think has always made Minnesota successful, which is the idea that we actually do owe obligations to one another, and we have to take responsibility to fulfill those obligations," he said.

"The GAMC cuts is one primary example," Thissen said. "I'm hearing from people in greater Minnesota who think that decision of not being willing to take care of our most vulnerable citizens crossed a moral line."

The economy is sour, but Minnesota also faces challenges of an aging population, environmental concerns, "and we need to start acting now to change the way we're operating and to be real serious about the solutions," he said. "We haven't worried about the consequences."

Also, he said, the state needs to send more decision-making to local governments.

"It's become very clear to me that this is a big state and a very diverse state, and one-size-fits-all answers from St. Paul won't work," Thissen said. "A lot of the policy work I've done over the last year and a half has really been focused on how can we set standards at the state but let local people have a lot more control over how they actually achieve what we all want to achieve."

Thissen this session carried the Association of Minnesota Counties' bill to allow the state to set objectives and let counties decide how to achieve them with the state money provided.

"I think it's really exciting possibility," he said. "The challenge is that it changes the way the state has to think about it, and we ran into some barriers from that perspective. Folks at the state feel threatened by this new way of thinking. But that's exactly the direction we ought to go."

Thissen realizes that the state faces an even larger state deficit in two years, and has plans to close that gap.

"We do need to rethink our tax system" he said, adding that all DFL gubernatorial candidates will offer that idea. "We need to bring more fairness back, we need to bring more revenues into the system. I'm very comfortable talking about that and in making that case."

Also, over the next five to six years, Minnesota needs to get its health care costs under control. "That is what is eating up our state budget."

The increasing trend line for health care costs is almost identical to the declining state investment in higher education, he said.

"If we can get health care costs under control, not by what the governor did which is just throwing people off because we're all paying for it anyhow, but by doing things smarter ... that is what is going to save us over the long term"

Savings can also come in long-term care by keeping people in their communities and supporting informal caregivers through tax credits.

"If we can think about not just increasing revenues or cut taxes or cut services, but how can we do things smarter to save money over the next five years, that's going to be a big part of the answer," he said.

Some estimates put the next deficit at $7 billion.

"Part of it (closing that gap_ is jumpstarting the economy," Thissen said. "We can grow some of this out of that. ... If we look out over four years, part of it comes back to how we budget as we need to get back to four-year budgeting."

The budget should include state and local budgets as well, he said, "so we get a picture of our whole public services from a financial budgeting perspective."

Thissen said Pawlenty, who isn't seeking re-election, "has left us in a very serious problem. ... We did the shift in education of nearly $2 billion this year and we can't shift any more to the next biennium. The next governor's going to have a serious problem.

"That's why it's really important not to make this election just about health care or taxes or a green economy, but we have to actually make it a discussion of what do we really want the state to look like in five years," he said. "And what are our values as Minnesotans. Who are we, because if we have that kind of conversation, not only is it good for the politics but it also lets us govern more effectively."

He says more money needs to go to Local Government Aid to cities, something Pawlenty has cut with each of his budgets and subject to unallotment as of Wednesday.

"They need that support both from a property tax standpoint and a services perspective," Thissen said, "and from a fairness standpoint across the state. ... Another thing just as important as the money is restoring the trust relationship between local governments and the state, which has really been frayed and destroyed."

An expert in health care policy, Thissen said he would take that reform-minded agenda to other state areas, such as education.

"Health care is the thing I'm really passionate about," Thissen said. "But that's not all this campaign is about, and I don't think it can be."

He wants to narrow the achievement gap in K-12 between families that are better off and families that are not. He also wants to narrow the gap between districts, bringing equality in areas such as transportation funding.

"Different kids learn very differently, " he said. "We haven't done as good a job within our public school systems of providing those different types of learning environments so that different kids can succeed."

That needs to be the focus more so than testing and outcomes, he said.

Right now, Thissen is meeting with Democrats across the state in small groups, hoping to sway potential DFL delegates to support his endorsement among a crowd of potential and declared Democratic candidates.

An attorney, Thissen is a Harvard graduate. He and his wife have three children.