The aging Stillwater Lift Bridge became a more telling symbol Monday than politicians likely intended, as legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton maneuvered toward either a budget deal or a partial government shutdown beginning Friday.
Republican legislative leaders set out to use the bridge as a backdrop for the argument that DFLer Dayton should be seeking to keep more state services, including the bridge, operational during a shutdown. That case was undercut shortly before it was made.
Word came from the Department of Transportation that the bridge is now deemed a critical service by the Dayton administration. The courts willing, the governor now aims to continue the bridge's regular rise and fall if other government functions cease.
So Republicans replayed last week's talking points instead. They asked Dayton to call them into special session before a full budget agreement is in place, something he has said he will not do.
And they gave no indication that they are willing to spend more than the $34 billion contained in bills that Dayton vetoed last month.
That turned the bridge into an emblem of misplaced focus by state leaders, on both sides. With only days remaining before the shutdown deadline, lawmakers ought to have been devoting all of their energies Monday to pursuit of a bipartisan compromise.
There's still time -- but very little time -- to avert the widespread damage that even a partial shutdown of state operations will inflict.
Preventing that damage demands lawmakers' full attention. Taking a side trip to Stillwater to criticize the other side in the budget dispute was not just futile, but risked being counterproductive.
Figuring out how to get a jump on the other side's move, as the Dayton administration evidently did Monday, is also a poor use of precious time.
Hammering out a new state budget isn't a game of chess or chicken. It's about preserving paychecks, sustaining economic recovery and doing those things that Minnesotans have determined through many years to be important to their shared life.
Failure to compromise with the stakes so high deserves to be seen as excessive gamesmanship, partisanship or devotion to ideology -- all of which are unworthy of bearers of Minnesota election certificates.
The absence of any signal Monday that the GOP is willing to back a larger budget was disappointing.
Rumors had been swirling that GOP leaders had finally recognized what was apparent to most Minnesotans soon after the 2010 election: Enacting a new budget would require that Republicans meet the new DFL governor at least partway, with a larger budget than "no new taxes" affords.
Our hunch is that an additional $1 billion in new revenues -- not all of it in the form of higher taxes -- would be sufficient to seal a deal.
It's similarly evident that the tax Republicans most strongly oppose -- a higher income tax for top earners -- cannot be part of a compromise. Dayton has said he's open to other revenue-raising options, but he expects Republicans to propose them. They have not.
Therein lies the hang-up. And therein lies an opportunity for GOP allies, particularly in the state's business organizations, to help GOP lawmakers see that not all revenue increases are harmful to the state's competitive position, and that not all of the cuts contained in the vetoed GOP spending bills are good medicine for this state.
It would be shameful to shut down any part of state government because of an unwillingness to make new revenue just 20 percent of the solution to a $5 billion budget deficit. Some business leaders have been conveying as much privately for weeks.
With the shutdown deadline almost here, those business voices should now become loud and clear.
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