Congressmen Ami Bera, David Cicilline, Rodney Davis and Adam Kinzinger talk problem solving.
No one can truthfully say that cooperation is for sissies. In the big sea of public decision-making, there are strong partisan undertows, and the easy way through rough waters is to go with the flow of the group with a firm grip on the ideology we believe will save us. It appears we might all drown as a result of such choices; tough national challenges go unresolved while too many of our elected leaders splash and flail in divisive rhetoric.
There is a better way, and it is exemplified by those public servants in local and state governments who are swimming against the currents, courageously letting go of hard lines, joining hands and taking risks. As the examples below illustrate, it’s not easy, it’s rarely perfect, and the work is never really finished. But what course do we really want to choose for our future: the easy way down, or pragmatic partnerships forward? (See any light through those murky waters yet, Congress?)
Arizona – Civil Discourse in the Public Square
Arizona has had its share of acrimonious politics of late, but the state is also home to an exemplary program encouraging civil discourse and cooperation in public life. Noting that strident and vitriolic language threatens the effectiveness of democracy at all levels of government, the University of Arizona Board of Regents established the National Institute for Civil Discourse in Tucson in 2011 to promote “frank, respectful and vigorous debate” and to “foster an open exchange of ideas and expression of values that will lead to better problem-solving and more effective government” through research, advocacy, and public policy initiatives. The Institute is co-chaired by former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and boasts a distinguished Board comprised of national leaders in public policy, academia, and media. U.S Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was named to the Institute’s National Board of Advisors in 2012.
Missouri – Cooperation on Tax Incentives
No doubt there’s plenty of devilment yet in the details, but there is also good potential in a gutsy bipartisan proposal from Kansas City area legislators who want to stop the use of certain state incentives to move jobs back and forth across the Kansas-Missouri state line. After years of an active (and escalating) border war in which both states have handed out generous tax breaks to lure companies from the other side, Missouri Republican Rep. T.J. Berry has introduced legislation co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. John Rizzo that would discourage the practice. Implementation of such a law would require Kansas to take the same step within two years. At least a few Kansas policymakers are favorable to the idea. State Senate President Steve Morrison said: "If we can cooperate with Missouri to try to come up with a good policy that helps both states, it's worth considering." This is going to be a tough one; let’s watch it with encouragement.
Rhode Island – Pension Reform
The Trillion Dollar Gap, a 2010 report on pension liabilities from the Pew Center on the States, lit a fire under states, nationwide. The findings documented a startling reality: the average state has only 77 percent of the assets required to satisfy their promise to retirees. In some states, assets equaled less than 50 percent of obligations. Of the 41 states that moved quickly to address the problem, Rhode Island achieved what Kiplinger’s Money Power called the “most comprehensive makeover yet." Legislators, civic and business leaders and others worked closely with the state treasurer to develop a “hybrid” retirement plan with traditional defined-benefits and a kind of 401(k) that requires employee contributions. The legislative reform, which includes additional changes, affects current and future employees as well as current retirees. It passed in November 2011 with overwhelming bipartisan support and immediately raised the state’s fund status from 48 to 60 percent.
Effective bipartisanship is a long haul. The South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, whose work has been frustrated by pushes and pulls at all levels of government, is a good case in point. Formed in 2004 with strong support across the political spectrum, the Authority oversees the conversion of a closed gold mine – Homestake in South Dakota’s Black Hills – into what may be the largest underground laboratory in the world. Researchers at the new Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake will conduct transformational physics and science experiments below 4,850 feet of rock, protected from the noise of cosmic rays that prohibit comparable research on the earth’s surface. The facility will house a science education center for students from nearby colleges and universities. Tribal leaders of the area, for whom the Black Hills are a traditional sacred ground, laud what the project represents: “… Something more precious [than gold] is being extracted from that hole in the ground: jobs, hope, knowledge and opportunity.”
Blair is a citizen leader from Alexandria, Va.