St. Cloud Times, Dec. 3
Changes to MnSCU will not be easy
Implementing significant reforms in any organization is never easy. And it often gets more difficult the larger the size of the group.
Knowing that, Minnesotans shouldn't expect light-speed miracles as the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system takes up recommendations in "Charting the Future for a Prosperous Minnesota." Still, residents should expect to see within just a few years significant signs that MnSCU is moving away from the status quo.
Why? As everyone from new students to legislators to top MnSCU leaders have noted, the status quo of today's higher education structure becomes less affordable with every tomorrow.
This report, compiled in the second year of MnSCU Chancellor Stephen Rosenstone's tenure and released last month, holds the potential to change how MnSCU operates while maintaining its commitments to student access and affordability, creating a qualified work force, and serving communities statewide.
Make no mistake, though, it won't be easy.
MnSCU has 54 campuses in 47 communities, including St. Cloud State University and St. Cloud Technical & Community College. Combined, MnSCU institutions serve more than 430,000 students and employ about 17,600 people.
Within that structure, this chart calls for both increasing collaboration and maintaining each campus's distinctiveness. Similarly, it states, "We must find the balance between honoring our commitment to serve communities across the state and, at the same time, investing where demand is increasing."
In many ways, are those not competing objectives? How can operations collaborate yet remain distinctive? How can any entity invest where demand is increasing without divesting in places where there isn't growth?
Hopefully, those answers emerge as the system targets these goals:
. Dramatically increase the success of all learners, especially those in diverse populations.
. Develop collaborative academic planning that advances affordability, transferability and access.
. Certify student competencies and accelerate degree completion through credit for prior learning and competency-based credit and degrees.
. Expand technology to deliver high-quality online courses as well as technology-enhanced instruction, student services, and individualized learning and advising.
. Deliver comprehensive workplace solutions to build employee skills.
. Redesign financial and administrative models to reward collaboration, drive efficiencies, and strengthen access to an extraordinary education for all Minnesotans.
The Free Press of Mankato, Dec. 4
Cut number of state boards, commissions
Minnesota taxpayers could save millions of dollars if state leaders would simply do same painless housecleaning of outdated and obsolete boards and commissions that have been draining nearly $160 million a year from state coffers.
A recent report by the Star Tribune highlighted millions of dollars in government waste on boards and commissions once set up with good intentions but now useless, obsolete or just plain dormant.
The newspaper reported a nuclear waste commission that hasn't met since 1986, an architectural board that illegally collected $800,000 in fees and dozens of boards and commissions have be unable to fill vacancies by the hundreds. The Board of Invention has never been able to fill any of its positions after being created in the 1990s.
Many of the boards and commissions were established with good intentions. We're sure many have experts in their fields that provide timely advice on policy issues facing the Legislature. Minnesota's government has always been responsive to the people and boards and commissions are one way for average citizens to have input on their government.
But there appears to be little management or oversight of some of these boards. They're not evaluated regularly to determine if they are needed or if they are meeting goals.
The Legislative Auditor had conducted reviews of about 50 of these boards and commissions over the years and found various problems with accountability. One didn't get a report of spending when it awarded a grant of about $200,000. Another lost tract of $10,000 in receipts. Even the Governor's Residence Council didn't keep a required list of receipts of gifts and assets of the governor's mansion for about three years in the late 1990s.
The Legislature attempted a few years ago to evaluate the effectiveness and need for some boards and commissions. The Republican-led Legislature of 2010 organized a Sunset Commission to do away with some of the boards if there use could not be justified. The bipartisan commission reviewed 40 boards, agencies and commissions but only discontinued one - the Combative Sports Commission -- according to the Star Tribune report.
Legislators noted the difficulty in eliminating boards and commissions with resistance often coming from those who came up with these great ideas and other constituencies who apparently vigorously defended the boards.
Gov. Mark Dayton said he sees the problem with boards and commissions as a way for the Legislature to micromanage what should be the duties of the executive branch. It's gotten to a point where it appears the executive branch cannot carry out some necessary functions because some board is in the way.
Others point to problems filling the boards with qualified applicants. There are currently some 375 open seats on boards and commissions, according to the Star Tribune report.
When Democrats gained control of the 2012 Legislature, they resurrected a form of the Sunset Commission and will soon recommend some 40 boards, commissions or agencies be scrapped.
This is an action that is probably long past due. The point is not that citizen input is important, but board and commissions, like other state agencies, should have to prove their worth by either the value of their recommendations or their ability to suggest efficiencies in state government or improved outcomes. A scorecard of such success of any and all board does not appear to be available.
Board and commissions are only as good as the advice they provide. Citizen or industry input may be important, but if reports from advisory groups continuously sit on a shelf somewhere, one has to question the value of the input.
At some point, the legislative hearing process has to be seen as an equally effective way to get citizen and expert input on policy issues. Creating lots of boards and commissions seems to duplicate that process and muddy the result.
Gov. Dayton has suggested the upcoming legislative session be an "Unsession" - one in which the Legislature find ways to streamline state government and do away with wasteful programs.
Winnowing the number of boards and commissions would be an excellent place to start.
Star Tribune of Minneapolis, Nov. 30
Using religion as a sword in the ACA contraception debate
Stuart Lind of Edina and Tom Janas of Delano are successful entrepreneurs who are committed to their Catholic faith. In 2001, Lind even called in a priest to consecrate his small Minnetonka medical-device firms to the "sacred heart of Jesus."
The two men have also joined a small group of employers nationwide in filing lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage mandate for employees' health insurance. Along with the other plaintiffs, the two claim that providing plans covering contraceptives forces them to go against church teachings and their personal religious beliefs, violating their "statutory and constitutional rights." Lind previously provided plans with coverage for contraceptives, but he now says he didn't realize that was the case.
While the Lind/Janas suit is winding through the courts, the U.S. Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will weigh in on two similar cases, one brought by Hobby Lobby's evangelical Christian owners, the other by a Mennonite cabinet maker.
Supporters of Hobby Lobby and employers like Lind, who owns Annex Medical and another firm, and Janas, who has owned firms in the dairy industry, claim that a Supreme Court decision in their favor would strike a blow on behalf of religious freedom. The reality is that a ruling like this would undermine that freedom and one of the bedrock ideals on which this country was founded — that all are equal before the law.
A ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby wouldn't merely shield an employer's religion but instead allow it to be used as a sword — a development that ought to alarm sincere champions of religious liberty.
In effect, the employer's beliefs would be held inherently more valuable than those of the employee's. Some might go even further, arguing that this would essentially force employees to abide by their employer's religious beliefs, particularly in the Hobby Lobby case — the craft store is an example of the type of employer whose workers may not be able to afford to buy contraception on their own.
Courts weighing other religious-liberty challenges understandably have been leery of allowing an employer's religious beliefs to exempt them from complying with other laws. In a 1990 ruling, Fourth Circuit judges rejected a Baptist-affiliated school's claim that it merited an exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act because paying men and women teachers equally violated officials' religious beliefs. The school gave raises to married men, but not to women, because officials deemed men the heads of households.
Those following the Hobby Lobby lawsuit should be similarly concerned that the Supreme Court may carve out an exemption to the ACA and allow employers to pick and choose their employees' medical coverage. Those who might be comfortable with the stance Lind and Janas are taking on contraception should realize that employers of other religions could also ask to withhold coverage if Hobby Lobby is successful.
For example, firms run by Christian Scientists or Jehovah's Witnesses might object to coverage for other conventional health care. This wouldn't just be a carve-out for Christians. Deference to one religion would necessitate deference to all.
It's also worth noting that health insurance is part of employee compensation. If workers elect to use coverage for birth control, it's the same as if they bought it with their own salaries. Lind and other executives don't have control over how their employees spend their wages. Why should they dictate personal decisions on using medical care compensation?
The Obama administration has already granted exemption to the birth-control coverage mandate for "houses of worship." That deference goes far enough and should not extend to for-profit businesses.
The Supreme Court's ruling, expected next summer, will be closely watched, not just because it's another challenge to the Affordable Care Act. A circuit court ruling for Hobby Lobby cited the Supreme Court's disturbing 2010 Citizens United ruling, which bars government restrictions on election spending by corporations, unions and associations, declaring that these entities have the same political speech rights as individuals. That decision allowed the super-rich to flood campaigns with money.
A Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby could extend similar constitutional protections, broadening the troubling concept of corporate "personhood" with unknown consequences for democracy. That would be a dubious legacy, one the justices would do well to steer away from.