Wendell Anderson and “A State That Works”

Sunday marked the passing of a Minnesota icon, as former Governor Wendell Anderson died at age 83. Governor Anderson faded from the political scene over the course of the 1970s, but even Minnesotans borne long after Anderson’s heyday have seen the August 1973 Time magazine cover featuring the image of the governor, holding a far-from-trophy northern pike, with the words “The Good Life in Minnesota” inscribed across his torso.

The cover heralded an article entitled “Minnesota: A State That Works.” According to the article, the factors that made Minnesota “work” included a strong work ethic, honest government, and a political culture that valued the common good. Anderson, himself a staunch progressive, identified yet one other factor that helped make Minnesota work: civility. In a 2003 interview, the former governor noted:

I was privileged to be governor when people were nice to one another. Republicans and Democrats got along, were able to do significant things for the state of Minnesota because they liked one another. They respected one another.

However, these assets by themselves do not necessarily result in good public policy. A further catalyst is needed: leadership. And Anderson provided it. During his tenure as governor, and most notably during the tumultuous 1971 regular and special legislative sessions, Anderson guided public policy in a creative and constructive direction. The fact that some of Anderson’s most notable policy accomplishments were enacted when conservatives controlled the legislature is a testament to his ability to work across the aisle in order to advance the welfare of the state.

A number of the policies enacted during the Anderson era are still bearing fruit in 2016. Under Anderson’s leadership, the state created the Property Tax Refund (PTR) program (also known as the “circuit breaker”), which targets tax relief to homeowners and renters who have high property taxes relative to their ability to pay. With the possible exception of the Working Family Credit, no other program in state law is as effective in reducing tax regressivity and increasing tax fairness. The PTR has been so effective that, in 2010, the House Rules Committee took the unusual step of commemorating the program as a “model of public policy throughout the last 35 years.” An expansion of the PTR was the cornerstone of property tax reform and relief enacted in 2013.

The Anderson era also saw passage of an array of programs that came to be known collectively as the “Minnesota miracle.” Among these was the Local Government Aid (LGA) program, which consolidated several state revenue sharing programs in a way that better targeted state assistance to communities that had high expenditure needs relative to the size of their local tax base. The LGA program has been modified and improved several times since its enactment in 1971 and funding levels have fluctuated, but it remains an important mechanism for controlling property taxes and ensuring that local government services are adequately funded.

Another component of the Minnesota miracle was the metropolitan tax base sharing program, also known as the “fiscal disparities” program, under which, according to the 1973 Time article, “the effects of new development in one part of the area are shared by all, thus eliminating the pockets of poverty and boom that characterize other urban sprawls.” In reality, the article overstates the accomplishments of the fiscal disparity program, since it did not truly eliminate “pockets of poverty and boom,” but it did mitigate some of worst effects of widely disparate tax base wealth within the seven county metropolitan area. The fiscal disparity program remains in effect today. In fact, a parallel tax base sharing program for Minnesota’s Iron Range patterned after the metro program was established in 1996.

Governor Anderson’s tenure also saw an expansion of the powers of the Metropolitan Council “to help shape development and control expensive sprawl.” This included the 1976 Metropolitan Land Planning Act. As summarized by former Representative Tom Berg in his 2012 book, “Minnesota’s Miracle,” the Act…

…required local units of government in the metropolitan area to develop land-use plans and submit them to the Metropolitan Council for review. The bill gave the Metropolitan Council the power to require the counties, towns, or cities to modify their plans to make them consistent with the council’s own metropolitan plan and other relevant local plans.

The changes to the Met Council enacted during the Anderson era were controversial when they were enacted and remain so today. Nonetheless, the Met Council is often held up as a model of regional governance.

According to Time, Anderson also undertook “a massive reorganization of the executive branch,” including the creation of a state planning office. In addition, the Anderson era also saw an expansion of non-partisan legislative staff to help state representatives and senators get informed, objective information on the issues of the day. While gripes about growth in government are common, legislators of all ideological stripes routinely praise the contribution of non-partisan staff to Minnesota’s policy development process.

Not least of the accomplishments made during the Anderson years was increased investment in both K-12 and higher education. According to the 1973 Time article, “the University of Minnesota is probably the dominant and most prestigious institution in the state.” In addition, Anderson pushed for and achieved a large increase in state funding for K-12 education that was instrumental in equalizing school funding throughout the state so that low wealth districts could adequately fund local schools without excessively high property taxes.

Many of the accomplishments of the Anderson era required new public revenue.  During his first biennium as governor, Anderson fought for and achieved increases in income, sales, and excise taxes. These revenues helped to fuel a 39 percent increase in state general fund spending during Anderson’s first biennium as Governor—dwarfing anything seen in recent history.

Anderson believed that government—managed honestly and intelligently—could effectively utilize new public resources in a way that would make Minnesota a more prosperous, livable, and equitable state. History would seem to indicate that he was right, as the state’s economy prospered relative to the rest of the nation in the decades following his tenure. Regarding the state’s effort to expand and equalize funding for education—arguably the biggest contribution of the Anderson era—former State Economist Tom Stinson observed:

Minnesota’s economic record over the last half-century is one most states envy.  The reason that occurred was because far-sighted public and private sector leaders figured out they were going to invest in the education of the baby boom generation.  Now it seems like an obvious decision to have made, but if it was, other states would have done it too and we wouldn’t have done as well.

Since the announcement of his death, Minnesotans of all political persuasions have publicly praised the character and abilities of Governor Anderson. No attempt is made here to recount these numerous accolades. The most lasting memorial to Wendell Anderson may well be his numerous policy achievements, which are still bearing fruit today.