Q&A with State Legislators Geoff Michel and Joe Atkins

State senator Geoff Michel (R-Edina) and representative Joe Atkins (DFL–Inver Grove Heights) had a shared thought one day over breakfast. (It’s true! A Democrat and a Republican broke bread together!) To wit: in the year 2020, senior citizens will outnumber school-age kids, leaving more retirees drawing tax-funded benefits than youths poised to enter the workforce and contribute payroll taxes. What to do?

That tête-à-tête generated the 2020 Caucus, a bipartisan group that now comprises more than 20 Minnesota legislators. Its message: just as the state approaches a huge demographic bubble, it will also face massive policy challenges in such areas as education, transportation, and health care—so preparations must start now.

The group has drawn the support of the Citizens League, as well as praise from the likes of Pioneer Press business columnist Dave Beal, who wrote last May, “Mostly, the caucus is trying to help legislators to reach past the widening ideological chasms that have diverted them from addressing festering problems.” But it also has been criticized for being long on premonition and short on solutions, a situation that may or may not have anything to do with co-founder Michel’s “no new taxes” pledge.

Shortly after Christmas, Minnesota Monthly sat down for a chat with Michel and Atkins at Joseph’s Grill in St. Paul.

So, it’s 2020 in Minnesota: more senior citizens than kids looking for jobs. Why is that a problem?
Geoff Michel: The warning bells go off when you start to think about how we’re going to deliver government services.

Joe Atkins: What level of taxes? What level of benefits?

GM: The nightmare I have is that, 10 or 15 years from now, one of my daughters is going to ask me, “Dad, what did you do when you were [at the Legislature]? You saw all this coming; what did you do?” I think a lot of legislators now have an appetite to get at that.

JA: We have no excuses. We can see it coming.

GM: Every once in a while you need a legislative group that’s going to look a little further than the next election. People should expect that, especially given the demographics that are coming our way.

Some critics of the 2020 Caucus observe that it’s small, and most members occupy safe seats or come from swing districts. Some say the latter lawmakers are more interested in insulating themselves against charges of partisanship than in making actual improvements. Anything to that?
JA: Is that necessarily bad? When we talk about hard topics, the ones people want to push down the road, you need a group that has both Democrats and Republicans so that you can insulate yourself from having it become a [negative] campaign issue. If we do it together, if we start taking steps now to address problems that we’re going to be facing in 5 or 10 years, there is—to use a term that gets used a lot—political cover.

GM: If we’re just able to key up the issues, that’s a sea change for Minnesota’s political discussion. If health-care costs keep going up by 10 percent a year, what kind of state are we going to end up with? We’re trying to get people to think about things like that.

Still, 2020 thus far has been short on specifics. If you aren’t proposing concrete solutions, then what do you bring to the table?
GM: Leadership can be about specific ideas and reforms, but you can’t [be specific] until you outline the problems. And my sense, from talking with legislators and other policymakers, is that we haven’t fully outlined the problems yet. So we still need to take the time to shine the spotlight [on the dilemma]. I’m heartened if people are saying, “Okay, there’s a problem—now what’s the solution?” I hope we’re getting close to that point.