It's hard to get a fix on today's politics

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 4, 2011 - 8:57 PM

Early childhood education is a good example: Presented with traditionally Republican ideas, Republicans balked.

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Duane Benson, former legislator, NFL linebacker and business advocate, has a new role as executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation. He is with one of his horses, "Harley", on his farm in Lanesboro.

Photo: Joey Mcleister, Star Tribune

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An offhand State Capitol tunnel chat a few months back has given me useful perspective on the budget stalemate that's developed since then.

Duane Benson -- former NFL player, former state Senate GOP leader, former CEO of the Minnesota Business Partnership, now head of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) -- was describing the "funny thing" he was experiencing this year as a lobbyist for smarter state spending on early childhood education.

He'd come to the Capitol with a passel of proven ideas that spring from traditional Republican philosophy. They had substantial business backing.

Among them: Don't start a new government program. Make use of existing private-sector providers. Engage them in a purely voluntary rating system. Take advantage of market forces. Empower poor parents to be informed consumers. Trust them to make preschool choices, in the same way affluent parents routinely do.

Here's the key one: Don't spend more tax dollars. Spend the tax dollars you already have in wiser ways.

"I thought the Republicans would love this stuff," Benson told me. "Instead, the Democrats are the ones who love it. A lot of Republicans don't want anything to do with it." In the new GOP view, government ought to have no role in the prekindergarten education of children, he explained.

Apparently not even Benson, with his Republican pedigree and winsome ways, could bring them around. None of the MELF proposals made it into the GOP-backed budget bills, all of which now bear veto stamps. On May 24, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton cited the omission of early childhood improvement measures as one reason for his vetoes.

On May 11, Benson sent a sour e-mail venting his frustration: "We'd like to congratulate the Legislature for preserving the status quo system that has half of Minnesota kids not ready for kindergarten and more than 34 funding streams with absolutely no accountability."

It's often said that Minnesota's two big political parties have grown more polarized because they have moved in opposite directions from an ill-defined midpoint. Independence Party candidates make the assertion their stock in trade: The DFL has been moving farther to the left, the GOP farther to the right.

Benson got me thinking that the notion needs rethinking. A case can be made that the ideological shift of both big parties has been to the right, and that a lot of DFL ideas now occupy what not long ago was considered Republican territory.

DFLers seldom frame their policy arguments in social-justice terms. They talk about "jobs, jobs, jobs" and seem increasingly keen on employing market forces to do public work. Witness their friendly response to MELF's early ed quality rating system and its plan to convert early childhood subsidies into (dare I say) a voucher program.

The lefty lines of an earlier era are heard no more. I can't recall when I heard a DFL politician openly question the merit of capitalism.

Dayton has been accused of waging class warfare by calling for higher income taxes for the state's $300,000-per-year-plus earners. But he correctly notes that those fortunate few pay a smaller share of their incomes in state and local taxes than middle earners do, and would still do so under his proposal.

He's not "soaking the rich." He's barely sprinkling them.

I sought out Benson last week for another installment of thought provocation. He didn't disappoint:

"The whole body politic has moved to the right, and for good reason. Government has earned a reputation that isn't spotless. It's fair game to criticize it, even among Democrats.

"But from Democrats, there's an acknowledgement that government is necessary, and there's still the idea that we can make it work better. From the Republican side, it has become, 'Just reduce it.'"

To be fair: "Just reduce it" does not describe the attitude of the entire GOP majority caucuses in St. Paul, or even the bulk of them. Substantial interest in improving government operations exists in GOP quarters.

Still, Benson's critique describes enough Republican legislators to make a GOP-Dayton budget compromise very hard to come by -- if it must be achieved with GOP votes alone.

But what if reform-minded, probusiness Republicans were to combine forces with latter-day probusiness DFLers? I can imagine the headline: "Bipartisan coalition averts shutdown."

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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