May this state witness the art of compromise

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2011 - 10:17 PM

It may be that polarization simply begets more polarization. That's not what we need.

Lori Sturdevant

Lori Sturdevant

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Bipartisan compromise is very difficult in latter-day state government, one often hears, because the philosophical chasm that separates the two big political parties has grown so wide.

I get that. But it could be that the converse is also true.

My notion: Minnesota Republicans and DFLers are so polarized today because they compromised too infrequently in the past decade.

Too many legislative sessions produced a win-lose result -- governor wins, Legislature loses.

The power tools available to a governor who wanted smaller government than the Legislature did made it too convenient for him to have his way.

As a result, nobody had to adjust his or her thinking about anything significant.

One party's zealots cheered, the other's sulked, as both went to their usual corners and looked to the usual suspects for campaign support.

Win-win endings produce a different dynamic between and especially within political parties. Compromise takes the leaders of both parties to a new place and obliges them to defend the new ground they occupy.

The people who cut such deals generally have the stature to sell their tradeoffs to their own camps. If they are good at it, they might even enlarge those camps in the process.

Instead of "look at what the bums did to us," their message is that the accommodations made to the other side "really aren't so bad."

The smart ones talk about all the new possibilities that emerge from compromise.

One of the reasons to root for a win-win finish in 2011 is that polarization has gone way too far for the good of this small, remote, still-cold-in-April state.

A big theme in Minnesota's 153-year success story is aggregation -- the willingness of citizens to pool their resources and deploy them to produce a statewide quality of life that few other U.S. states match.

Too much polarization, of both the philosophical and the geographical kinds, weakens the political will for aggregation. Polarization is especially harmful here -- though it's not good for a nation that has the word "United" in its name, either.

I was mulling as much last week at a briefing about a very partisan omnibus House K-12 finance bill, listening to its sponsor, Rep. Pat Garofalo, praise the governor.

You read that right. This conservative GOP legislator was praising DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, the governor with whom he struck a breakthrough compromise last month that put an alternative midcareer pathway to teacher licensure into law.

Dayton and his education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, were "a joy to work with" on licensure, Garofalo said. They share a desire to go where research findings lead them to improve teacher effectiveness and close the student achievement gap, he said.

"We're going to surprise a lot of people this session. ... This governor and this Legislature are going to do a lot of great things for education."

Not many Capitol occupants share that assessment just now, about education or anything else. Some who heard Garofalo deem him either insincere or unrealistic.

My read is that he is neither.

I'd say the four-termer from Farmington is demonstrating a serious legislator's recognition of both the importance of a win-win outcome this year and what it will take to get there. He knows that tossing rhetorical bombs at this stage won't help.

"There's a lot of opportunity this year to move Minnesota to a new place," he told me last week. "But we have to recognize that nothing is going to happen in education unless the governor and both parties in the Legislature agree on it."

He's right. And he has to know that the bill he steered into conference committee last week does not get there.

It moved money from schools in urban DFL districts to the rest of the state, in a way that appeared designed to win every last Tea-stained GOP vote rather than set the stage for compromise.

A right-wing minority of the majority was able to dictate such things as dropping a pre-K quality rating system from the bill.

Mollifying the Legislature's Tea Party faction may be good for Republican caucus unity. But that's not the win-win Minnesota needs this year.

The moves GOP leaders like Garofalo make next will show whether they're aiming for a win-win not just within their party, but for Minnesota.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial board member, editorial writer and columnist.

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