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Workers hustled with finishing touches on Monday outside the Senate chambers at the State Capitol in St. Paul. The 2012 session convenes on Tuesday.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Engineer Dave Albien changed one of the thousands of lightbulbs in the Capitol.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Students from Obama Elementary in St. Paul took in the ceiling murals while touring the Capitol on Monday.

David joles, Star Tribune

Thinking locally as Legislature returns

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS
  • Star Tribune
  • January 24, 2012 - 12:43 AM

Minnesota government is a tangle of bureaucracies, jurisdictions and red tape that critics say can make it difficult for communities, schools and agencies to deliver services to those who need them.

As the 2012 legislative session gets underway Tuesday, the bipartisan Minnesota Redesign task force wants lawmakers to take a baby step toward streamlining with a bill to allow counties leeway to launch cost-saving policies on their own, becoming "laboratories of democracy" for the state. The effort is just one of several reform proposals being rolled out in a session that also expects to deal with the budget, a Minnesota Vikings stadium, bonding and a host of other issues.

"We need to start thinking about a very different way we interact with each other," state demographer Tom Gillaspy said at a recent gathering of the Minnesota Redesign project in Bemidji. "That's going to require a culture change. It's not going to be easy."

How tangled is Minnesota's bureaucracy? One Steele County commissioner estimated that a single check passed through 35 hands before it got to where it was going in his county.

When 11 southwestern counties tried to pool resources to better deliver social services, the project was repeatedly derailed because they had to ask the Legislature's permission every time they wanted to set policy, which delayed the project by two years.

The group is pushing a piece of legislation with the catchiest acronym of 2012 -- the MAGIC Act, short for the Minnesota Accountable Government Innovation and Collaboration Act. Approved by the Senate last year, the bill would allow counties to sidestep regulations and legislative restrictions and come up with their own solutions to problems in a limited number of test cases.

"We need less paternalism and more partnership," said Jim Miller, executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities, speaking at Monday's news conference at the Capitol.

The act might allow a community to brainstorm its own solution for lowering pollution levels in a lake, or getting families off welfare -- without needing permission from the Legislature or following usual state agency regulations. A successful pilot program saving resources might become a model for the rest of the state.

"Just as states should be laboratories for democracy for the nation, counties should be laboratories for the state of Minnesota," said Jeff Spartz, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties.

This particular experiment has an alphabet soup of civic groups lined up to support it, in addition to the bipartisan legislative task force and the governor's office.

"Figuring out how to make it easier for local governments to innovate is a really, really great idea," said Tina Smith, chief of staff for Gov. Mark Dayton.

Smith said that state and local governments "are often confronted with a system of rules, regulations and laws that have been layered on year after year. ... It's like a system of pipes that have gotten all kinked up [and] we need to straighten out those pipes."

The state is not the only entity that needs to give up a measure of control and let communities innovate, the reformers concluded. Cities and counties should work together to share resources and eliminate duplicate services -- even if that means giving up a measure of local identity, such as having its own police force, or its own township government.

"The time for parochialism has passed," Miller said. "The way we've always done things in the past is not going to work in the future."

Minnesota Redesign held six meetings in the past few months that drew more than 400 local leaders together to compare bureaucratic horror stories and to share ideas for cooperation and cost savings. Beltrami County teamed up with the Department of Natural Resources to patrol its sprawling territory. Scott County operates a pooled IT department for all its schools -- from elementary through college -- and coordinates health and human services with its city and tribal jurisdictions.

"This is the new normal," said Rep. Carol McFarlane, R-White Bear Lake, who hopes the Magic Act will spark other collaborative efforts statewide. "We need to build relationships, build bipartisan support, be more flexible."

The legislation would allow each county to propose two projects, unfettered by the usual state mandates or requirements. To avoid overloading any one state agency with too many experimental test programs -- such as 87 counties proposing 87 projects to the Department of Health and Human Services in a single year -- proposals would be capped at 10 each to any one state agency.

Rep. Diane Loeffler, D-Minneapolis, co-chair of the House Redesign Caucus, said a redesigned Minnesota should be more interested in the outcome of a policy than in the process that led to that outcome.

"We trust our local government partners to be responsible and accountable," she said.

The Magic Act passed the Senate by a vote of 62-1 last year. Supporters hope it will make its way quickly to the floor as the Legislature returns to work this week.

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049

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