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Gov. Mark Dayton departed the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School in the rain after announcing he would seek a budget deal with GOP leaders.Thursday, July 14, 2011, while speaking at the U of M.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Lori Sturdevant: How can we swallow this bitter pill?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • July 16, 2011 - 9:50 PM

It's easy for us editorial writers to bash the deal that Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislators struck Thursday to (may it be so) end the shutdown before many more calendar pages turn.

That's because we don't have to strike high-stakes bargains with people whose idea of good government is wildly at variance with our own, while under the hostile gaze of idled workers and thirsty beer lovers. And then stand for reelection after we do.

It's also easy because blowing a hole in future budgets and forcing schools to borrow by the bucketful are practices that flood meaty adjectives to mind. Among them: myopic, deceptive, irresponsible, pusillanimous (there's a dandy!) and just plain lousy.

The State That Works would never delay payments to school districts by $700 million in the next two years -- most assuredly not after delaying them in the last biennium by $1.4 billion, promising to pony up in full this year, and then reneging. It wouldn't even consider pulling future tobacco lawsuit proceeds into the next two years, depriving future biennia of that revenue and saddling those future budgets with extra interest costs to boot.

That state took pride in its top bond rating, and would never court its demotion. But this summer, Minnesota has been The State That Doesn't Work.

The best argument GOP leaders can marshal to convince their caucuses to support this stinker of a deal is that it will end the shutdown, which does more damage with each passing day. In the nearly two months since the Legislature's regular session ended, no other bargain was close to being struck.

Of course, a fairly modest and competitively benign tax increase, of almost any kind, could have done the trick. Dayton wasn't fussy anymore.

But the DFL governor was dug in on spending at least $35.5 billion. Traveling to St. Cloud, Rochester and Albert Lea last week armed him with fresh stories about the ill effects the GOP's $34 billion budget would bring.

And not even raising cigarette or alcohol taxes -- and certainly not asking wealthy Minnesotans for a penny more -- was acceptable to Republicans.

We'll see this week whether myopic, deceptive, irresponsible one-time gimmicks are more to their liking.

One other bit of sugar might help legislators -- and dismayed Minnesotans -- choke down this nasty pill: A concerted move toward creating a more stable and sustainable budget next time. The Dayton-GOP deal creates a de facto deadline for change -- 2013, when the bill for this year's borrowing starts coming due.

Calls for "redesign" that have been coming from policy wonks for years need to go viral now. Finding ways to make government smarter, steadier and fairer needs to move to the top of political agendas. A high-profile, bipartisan process to gin up bills containing those changes ought to commence as soon as the lights go back on in state offices.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch's pronouncements included encouraging references to reform.

For example, at Monday's news conference: "We firmly believe that the discussion needs to be about where are you spending the money, how are you spending the money, and most importantly, in what way are you spending the money differently that will result in savings and a more sustainable, cost-effective budget going forward."

Examples? Koch said Friday that her caucus is eager to move health care delivery away fee-for-service to "whole person" medicine. They see opportunities to streamline government jurisdictions and find efficiencies in higher education.

"Things are coming together in a way that lends itself to that work," she said.

She's right -- in part because this year's GOP-led reform efforts have shown how not to proceed. Their voucher replacement for MinnesotaCare would have stuck the poor with unaffordable high-deductible coverage. Mandates to lop off 15 percent of state workers would have rendered some agencies dysfunctional. Cutting off aid to Minneapolis and St. Paul would have eroded their livability.

And "no new taxes" perpetuates an unfair, anticompetitive, unstable revenue foundation for state and local governments.

The way to a more-sustainable state budget is with a more politically sustainable reform process. It must be bipartisan, or it will fail. The Dayton-GOP deal looks like a lose-lose proposition now. But if it's the prelude to a bipartisan redesign push, the eventual result could be win-win.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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