Could some of the cure for what ails state government be smarter power-sharing with counties? That possibility is getting a serious look at the Capitol this week. The Association of Minnesota Counties is advancing a far-reaching proposal for giving county boards the reins to drive a number of services the state controls now.
The county initiative carries a label that's in vogue this year -- Minnesota Redesign. Calls for cost-saving reconfiguration of government services seem to be everywhere. But specific, workable ideas to do government's work well at lower cost are far scarcer.
That's what makes the county proposal worthy of legislators' attention. It's loaded with concrete ideas. For example:
• Counties could give up all of their state aid -- roughly $300 million a year -- in exchange for a half-cent sales tax that counties would share in a way that does not leave retail-poor counties at a disadvantage. County boards could spare their constituents from the tax with an "opt-out" option.
• Sheriffs could take over highway patrols, allowing a reduction in the State Patrol of at least 50 percent.
• Similarly, counties could take over snowplowing and maintenance of state highways, except for freeways, saving the state budget $100 million a year. (They could also look at sharing those services with cities.)
• Counties could take over and consolidate the state's probation programs.
• Adjudication of a host of minor legal cases could be assigned to county magistrates, freeing district judges for more significant suits and criminal offenses.
• Counties could be given home-rule powers, affording them more freedom to decide for themselves what to do, and how and with whom to do it. Services better tailored to regional needs and consolidated with other units of government ought to result.
The county association sees in those ideas the potential to shrink state spending by nearly $1 billion in the 2012-13 biennium. Taxpayers would see higher sales taxes under the proposal, but many would also see a slowdown in property tax increases.
That would be welcome. Property taxes have spiked in the last decade as state spending cuts have stressed county operations. Services have also been cut, in some cases painfully. Gov. Tim Pawlenty's latest budget proposal would whack county aid next year by more than a third.
"We've been nibbling at the edges, cutting 10 percent here, 10 percent there," said Paul Wilson, now serving his 16th year on the Olmsted County board. Without major changes in what's expected of counties and how they are funded, "We are now going to have do wholesale elimination of some things that are not mandated -- ambiance things like libraries and parks."
A number of the counties' ideas aren't yet ripe for enactment. But if legislators deem the concept of more county control promising, this is the year to begin giving counties more operational freedom. The Legislature should start by phasing out orders that dictate what counties must do and how they must do it. Those mandates should be replaced with measurable policy goals and a process of holding counties accountable for achieving them.
By constitutional design, counties are creatures of state government. But that ought not mean that county commissioners have to take a back seat to the Legislature in assessing citizens' needs and determining how best to meet them.
In recent years, nonpartisan county governments have shown a capacity for can-do creativity that has eluded the highly partisan, gridlock-prone Legislature. They appear ready and willing to make some of the hard decisions that tough times require of government, and to do so wisely. The Legislature should welcome the counties' offer of help.