Annette Meeks is the CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.

Renee Jones, Star Tribune

When shutdown ends, will lawmakers mend fences?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • July 9, 2011 - 8:53 PM

The shutdown will end one day. (Cue the "Casablanca" fog.) Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon -- and Minnesotans will have to live with its consequences for the rest of their lives.

This will be a deal that big.

What will matter just as much as whether taxes are raised, spending is cut or the can gets kicked you-know-where is what happens to state government's ability to adapt to change.

More specifically, will DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican legislative majorities be able to come out of their respective foxholes and together take on the challenges of an aging and diversifying population and global economic competition?

Annette Meeks thinks they will. The founder and president of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota and the 2010 GOP candidate for lieutenant governor knows the Capitol's current cast of characters well. She says they are good and smart Minnesotans who won't burn so many bridges that they can't do business when the shutdown ends.

What's more, she told me last week, the imperative for getting better results from the tax buck has become too great to ignore -- no matter how today's budget fight ends.

"Everything will change in the next 20 years, and government simply has to change, too," she said.

Meeks believes the next state budget should be set with no tax increase. I disagree.

But I nod in agreement when I hear her and other GOP leaders say something that too many DFLers only whisper: Today's government structures and policies were built for a world that is rapidly disappearing.

Republicans give the word "unsustainable" a sour taste by using it to justify denying low-income Minnesotans affordable health care or transit services, or starving public colleges and universities.

But strip away that connotation, and the word is apt. Spending is scheduled to outstrip revenues as far as state forecasters can see -- even if the shutdown ends with permanent corrections for the $5 billion forecasted deficit. (And it won't.)

Meeks may be a partisan, but she's an honest wordsmith. She applied "unsustainable" to the fix some Republicans favor to galloping health care costs -- cutting eligibility.

"That's politically unpopular and it's unsustainable. It just pushes costs elsewhere.

"You've got to innovate on Medicaid, not cut people off programs," she said.

Same goes for property tax relief, long-term care, higher education and even the politically sensitive K-12. Maybe especially K-12. Meeks used that sacred line item to illustrate the value of what may be her favorite "government redesign" proposal -- switching to priority-based budgeting.

"Now we do very little to set priorities within K-12," Meeks observed. "If we had priority-based budgeting, we'd decide first, as a group, what percentage of expected revenues we'll spend on K-12.

"Then we'd decide what the priorities are within that category. We'd target things like early reading intervention, prekindergarten learning, things that get you the desired outcomes. What may be put by the wayside are things that don't produce better results.

"Every two years, the Legislature would go back and measure. Did we achieve those results? That would tell them where to target additional resources."

Meeks, a former staffer to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is one of a goodly number of seasoned government hands from both parties who have been touting "redesign" as the solution to what ails the public sector.

One such group, organized by the Civic Caucus, has been meeting periodically for months. Its convener is caucus vice chair Dan Loritz, who served the late DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich as deputy chief of staff.

Loritz's advice to Dayton: Take the GOP no-tax budget but insist that spending be front-loaded into the first year of the two-year budget period. Use that first year as a transition period to reform -- to design, enact and implement changes that will reduce government costs through smarter incentives and streamlined structures, not a meat-ax.

The economy will keep changing between now and next spring, when the Legislature will be back in session. Adjustments will surely be needed, and can be made then -- hopefully in a less tension-laden environment than exists today.

"The economic downturn and the structural imbalance of the state's general fund budget have combined to create both a crisis and a rare opportunity for change," Loritz said. "The governor is going to be in office for at least three more years. He can be the leader of this change."

He'll need to be, or it won't happen. And he needs like-minded Republicans with whom he can join forces. It will be tragic if the shutdown ends with relationships so broken that cooperation is no longer possible.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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