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Minnesota Democrats passed their program — can they make it work?

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Minnesota Democrats passed their program — can they make it work?

Sep 15, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By J. Patrick Coolican
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Minnesota Democrats passed their program — can they make it work?
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Live look at the author's anxieties about DFL governance. Photo by Getty Images.

Consider a scenario that could play out in early 2026 as Minnesota’s new paid family and medical leave law takes effect, 10 months before a midterm election when voters will choose a governor and all 201 legislators. 

Picture a major IT failure or breach, the wrong taxes imposed on the wrong people, or workers owed payment for leave and not receiving it, leading to evictions or unpaid medical premiums. 

The paid family leave program will bring some humanity to our work lives, allowing new parents to nurture children, and children to care for aging adults. 

But it’s a massive government undertaking, requiring a payroll tax on both workers and their employers, and the correct apportionment of paid leave credit. Plus, many employers that already offer paid leave will comply by using a private plan or self-insuring, adding to the regulatory complexity.  

The rollout of other major government programs has rarely been seamless. During the problematic infancy of Obamacare, Bloomberg recalled the troubled introduction of Medicare, the literal lifesaving socialized health insurance program for the elderly: “Hospital administrators grumbled, complaining of delays processing patients, overcrowding, and a host of related ills.”

Paid family leave is just one of several major programs that state government is implementing in the coming years: The Office of Cannabis Management will license and regulate legal marijuana. The Department of Public Safety will issue drivers’ licenses to eligible people regardless of immigration status. A new state agency will support families and children, blending several existing departments. We’re even getting a new flag and seal. 

Many things can go wrong, and amid the most polarizing moment in recent political history, Republicans will do everything short of active sabotage (though anything is possible, e.g., Jan. 6) to undercut the programs and make the government — and by extension Democrats — look bad. 

Which could hand the 2026 election to the Republicans, who could reverse everything Democrats accomplished this year. 

“I’d be lying if I said we haven’t discussed that exact scenario,” said Teddy Tschann, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Tim Walz, when I asked him about the high stakes. “We’ve declared this a no-fail mission.” 

Walz’s legacy will be defined by the monumental 2023 legislative session, but just as much by how well his administration implements the policies intended to create a more humane but also more dynamic Minnesota, one that will help people when they fall but also nurture the founder of the next Medtronic.  

Mario Cuomo said if campaigning is poetry, then governing is prose, but the distinction can also be true of legislating and administering. Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers left St. Paul to thunderous applause, national press write ups and a celebration captured on a fancy drone video

Now, however, thousands of state employees, working in often grim, windowless rooms that are a feature of government architecture, must read and understand the laws. And then they must hire people to carry them out, contend with procurement procedures and problem contractors and public sector unions and all manner of political constituencies, under the watchful eye of the press and the Legislature. 

“The work is not glamorous. It’s subject to public scrutiny and criticism. And you’re working within a bureaucracy, so it can feel frustratingly difficult to navigate,” said Charlene Briner, currently helping stand up the new Office of Cannabis Management. She has a well-earned reputation as a skilled fixer when it comes to DFL political and governance challenges, with experience at the Department of Education and the Department of Human Services after six years as a legislative aide. Now, they seem to dispatch her to wherever she’s needed, from the Senate DFL election campaign last year to the Racing Commission earlier this year.

Briner’s is an important skill set in a deeply misunderstood field. The public is often either apathetic or openly hostile to government, the result of decades of anti-government rhetoric from wealthy and corporate interests and their handmaidens in media and politics, while people in government typically take the shelling in silence.  

The public is largely uninformed, for instance, about successes like these: In 2022, 29 million people were lifted above the poverty line by Social Security, as the Reformer’s Madison McVan reported this week. But it requires a lot of work: The Social Security Administration employs 60,000 Americans.

“People are skeptical that government can make a difference in their lives, and when people perceive that we’re not moving quickly enough when we’re doing our due diligence, it leads to further erosion of trust,” Briner said. 

But when you move too quickly and don’t do the due diligence, there’s the risk of waste and fraud, as in the case of the Feeding Our Future and Paycheck Protection Program scandals. 

Aside from the usual issues, we’re in an especially trying time for government to implement and manage programs. 

Among fields with workers aged 55 and older, “public administration” is near the top, with nearly 27% approaching retirement, according to a state researcher

As Briner points out, managers have skills that are especially transferable, and the Twin Cities job market is awash in management jobs at Fortune 500 companies, as well as local government. Which means state government often struggles to attract and retain talent.

The Office of Cannabis Management needs to fill 150 positions across a range of fields, including HR, finance, technology, and compliance and enforcement. 

The paid family leave program will require some 400 workers. 

Briner said state government has a secret weapon when it comes to hiring — people who work in government are often motivated by a sense of public purpose they can’t easily find in the private sector. They put up with the headaches and lower pay because they believe in Minnesota and its future. That’s worth remembering the next time you’re about to lose your cool over some maddening government red tape or failure. 

After I talked to Evan Rowe, deputy commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, which will run the paid leave program, I felt a touch more optimistic about January 2026. 

“We’re looking to build off what’s worked,” he told me. “That’s the advantage of being the 13th state with a paid leave program. We can learn from what’s worked in other states and, just as important, what’s not worked.” 

The most important mission this summer was hiring someone to run it, and they seem to have made a solid find in Greg Norfleet, who starts Wednesday. Norfleet comes from Massachusetts, where he helped launch that state’s paid leave program in 2021. Before that, he was on something called the Massachusetts Strategic Innovation team, which was a kind of in-house consultant for state government under then-Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. 

Looking far and wide for talent — as opposed to tapping some connected political hack — is a key facet of good governance. (I spent seven years in Nevada, where what locals call “juice” was too often the only qualification that mattered in one of the worst governed states in the nation.)

Rowe understands the nature of governance: “It’s unsexy, but it’s the difference between dreams and reality, and we’re excited about making it real.”