Earning Respect

I just flew in from two of the most beautiful cities in one of the most beautiful states I have ever visited – Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota.

Each spring for the last 14 years, Atlanta region representatives have visited other major cities to meet with their counterparts there. The program, called LINK, is sponsored by the Atlanta Regional Commission. This year more than 120 participated, including mayors and county commissioners as well as leaders from business, government, chambers of commerce and nonprofits.

The Twin Cities have a physical infrastructure that any community in America could only dream of. Surrounded by more than 10,000 lakes and 52,000 acres of parks, the area is known as the Bicycle Capital of the Midwest.

They have a transit system that is one of the best I’ve seen, and the Minnesota education system produces more high school and college graduates than any state in the nation; it matches up with the best in the world.

The state is home to a large number of Fortune 500 companies including Target, 3M, General Mills and Hormel Foods. People there love their state, even when the thermometer is below freezing six months out of the year.

The people have a high tolerance for taxes. Unlike our citizens, Minnesota’s have a deep respect for state government. They pay higher taxes, but feel they get good value.

The state budget for Minnesota is in the neighborhood of $18.5 billion for a population of 5 million people. Georgia has a total budget of $18.5 billion for 10 million citizens.

An example of the tolerance for taxes: In November 2008 Minnesota voters approved an additional three-eighths of one percent sales tax, to last until 2034, to protect drinking water, safeguard wetlands, create new parks and trails and to establish a fund to finance the state’s many arts and cultural activities (approximately $48 million in 2010). In addition, the state recently passed another one cent sales tax that will more than take care of Minnesota’s future transportation needs.

The transportation measure was controversial, and LINK leaders learned that it was the business community that stepped forward to help get the constitutional amendment passed. After the bill passed both houses in the Democratic legislature, the state’s Republican governor vetoed the bill. He had recently taken a “No Tax Increase” pledge, and wanted the measure to die.

So the Minnesota State Chamber of Commerce and local chamber and business leaders went to work and convinced the legislature to override the veto. The measure then went before the voters and was passed into law.

Some of the states and cities LINK trips have visited are not as well run as we are. But Minnesota stands head and shoulders above Georgia.

In the problem-solving arena, our Repub-lican state legislature has been a complete failure. The last several years there has been nothing but infighting and petty jealousy between the speaker of the house and the lieutenant governor. The lack of trust between our Republican governor and both houses of the legislature has paralyzed our government.

When the LINK group left to fly back to Atlanta, a kind of depression fell across the crowd.

Many leaders feel the business community will have to redouble its efforts to solve our state’s transportation, trauma care and water problems and address many other state needs. It will not happen next year.

There is a major election, and the Georgia legislature has a history of being especially unproductive during election years. Except for tort reform that passed seven years ago, our legislature has acted as though every year since has been an election year.

Higher taxes should not be the only answer. We can’t fund transportation solutions without more taxes, but they could be minimal in concept, utilizing TADs, impact fees and toll road projects.

Doing nothing is not an acceptable answer. The only real hope the business community has to bring progress to Georgia is to visit individually with all the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor and convince them that whoever is elected in 2010 must have the courage to break the stalemate with the Georgia legislature. It will be no easy task.

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