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Minnesota State Capitol

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The pitter-patter of bipartisan feet?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • February 18, 2012 - 4:15 PM

It's an itty-bitty piece of the House Republican Reform 2.0 agenda. If anything on that right-tilting legislative wish list could be a baby step toward bigger bipartisan moves by the 2012 Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton, this could be it.

So I thought Tuesday as I scooted to the House GovOps Committee to hear discussion on HF1954. That's Edina Republican Rep. Keith Downey's attempt to get cities and counties to report their spending to the public in a clearer and more meaningful way.

This looks promising, I thought. It's not a funding cut or a levy limit. It's not a tax burden transfer from rich businesses to poor renters. It boils down to a rearrangement of existing city bookkeeping to better tell taxpayers where spending is growing and/or shrinking. More transparency -- who can oppose that?

Minutes after discussion of the bill began, it appeared that I'd thought wrong. An excerpt:

DFL Rep. Bev Scalze: "This is almost like a hate-Minnesota campaign! It's like [Republicans are saying] 'Nothing works in Minnesota anymore.'"

GOP Rep. Michael Beard: "This is not a 'hate Minnesota government' bill! We're trying to have an intelligent decision here."

DFLers: Is so!

Republicans: Is not!

There's some literary license in that last exchange. But you get the idea: The bipartisanship that's requisite for governing a divided state is in terribly short supply.

Years of can-kicking rather than compromise at the Legislature have littered the governing field with jagged-edged, unresolved, highly partisan policy fights. Even minor bills bump into them.

Downey's bill is a case in point. Cities and counties are already required to tell taxpayers what they are spending on each major function -- police, fire, public works, parks, debt service and the like. HF1954 would add another layer to Truth in Taxation statements. It would tell taxpayers about spending by type -- such things as employee salaries and benefits, capital equipment, and goods and services purchased from vendors and consultants.

That data is already in the fine print of reports local governments send the state auditor. But it's hard to find, let alone compare with previous years and other jurisdictions.

Ask for that data to be summarized and reported in a new way, as Downey does, and overripe divisive questions pop up. For example:

• Who's responsible for rising local property taxes -- the state, which has been squeezing aid to cities for a decade? Or the locals, who set their levies each year amid a barrage of second-guessing?

• Are public employees underpaid or overpaid, and who decides? Are public payrolls padded, or has the state's financial squeeze left local governments too lean? What's the rightful role of public employee unions?

•Are state requirements (mandates, in Capitol vernacular) responsible for local inefficiency and excessive spending? Would this requirement cost more than it's worth? What mandates can be jettisoned?

Pay equity for women in local government, a metro county lobbyist answered when that last question was posed. It goes to show: One fellow's burdensome mandate is one-half the population's hard-won assurance of workplace fairness. Mandates aren't all bad -- not by a long shot.

Downey's bill advanced Tuesday on a brittle party-line 8-6 vote to its next committee.

The next day came Dayton's unexpectedly conciliatory State of the State message. Instead of using his bully pulpit to castigate Republicans, the DFL gov talked at length about how together they'd done a few things right in 2011. He made business permitting speed-up and state agency information technology consolidation sound like major breakthroughs. Given last year's budget war, maybe they were.

Like me, Dayton appeared to be looking for baby steps to praise, knowing that bigger things (tax reform, affordable health care, an end to the achievement gap) won't happen unless long-lost habits of bipartisan lawmaking are revived.

Downey had a second hearing on his bill the day after Dayton's speech. It won voice-vote approval after he amended it to accommodate some local-government timing concerns. "There was a different spirit in the room," the Edina Republican said afterward.

That's how baby steps start.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

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