Star Tribune Editor: As budget standoff stretches on, we seek fairness, depth

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2011 - 10:18 PM

The budget is on everybody's mind; our job is to illuminate.

Star Tribune reporters and editors have covered many a state budget battle over the years, but the current standoff is one for history.

Readers' eyes often glaze over when it comes to stories about numbers and budgets; this year, they are deeply engaged. We know this because budget stories are trending in our list of top-read stories online, alongside stories about the Twins.

Sunday papers with big budget stories splashed across the front are selling out. Letters are piling up in my office. And when you walk in to buy a pair of glasses and the optometrist wants to talk about the budget, well, you know people are paying attention.

Watching all this from the outside, Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin said, it looks like our politicians are playing a game of chicken with people's lives at stake. On the other hand, some readers believe some politicians are acting more like Chicken Little, suggesting the sky will fall if services are cut.

Between the politicians and our readers stand a staff of reporters and editors, who have been working doggedly to sort out the rhetoric so that ordinary citizens can understand how this might change their taxes, their services and their schools.

Since late last year, when the elections brought us a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature, we've set goals for our coverage.

First, we don't want to take sides. I know some readers roll their eyes at that notion, but this is something we have consistently discussed and evaluated in every story. Every time one side comes out with a proposal, we require that the story give one clean shot at the facts before the other side takes a swipe at it. For example, if the GOP has a proposal on K-12 spending, we outline that plan first, rather than leading with Gov. Mark Dayton's inevitable critique -- and vice versa.

We try to get behind the rhetoric and explore the true ramifications of each proposal. It's normal to predict the absolute worst possible outcome for citizens if your budget is being cut in order to try to persuade decisionmakers to look elsewhere. At the same time, there are clear winners and losers in every budget fight; readers should know what they are.

Finally, we look for stories that will be illuminating beyond the daily news. We kicked off this year with a multipart series exploring the many facets involved in trying to close the budget deficit, and we've continued to look for unique angles behind the sound bites.

This week, for example, reporter Baird Helgeson profiled House Speaker Kurt Zellers, showing readers the slender tightrope he is walking as he tries to bridge a deal between his party's legislators -- many of whom promised voters they would cut spending -- and Dayton -- who pledged to raise taxes.

When might the Republicans and Dayton break this impasse? Helgeson said readers should hold on tight. "All of the most optimistic people I speak with say they believe at least a brief shutdown is inevitable."

Seasoned leaders from the Pawlenty administration, who recall the 2005 shutdown, also told him some legislators might be underestimating public outcry. "One in particular said the general public doesn't care if you are in the administration, a legislator, a Democrat or a Republican, they won't be shy about .... focusing the blame on you."

When politicians are finally ready to reach agreement, Politics editor Pat Lopez said, it can happen quickly. "There are a number of mathematical ways to solve the state's dilemma, but that's not the issue here. This is about a redefinition of the role of government."

With deeply felt convictions about that role on both sides of the aisle, this has proven to be a quagmire that has ensnared politicians at every level this year. Sometimes, however, it's worth noting that failure to make a decision is in fact a decision of its own.

Do you suppose our founding fathers envisioned gridlock when they wrote the Constitution?

Nancy Barnes is editor of the Star Tribune.

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