Carol McFarlane

file, Star Tribune

Lori Sturdevant: Reform bill is getting sawed in half

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • April 21, 2012 - 7:09 PM

Six years ago, state Rep. Carol McFarlane of White Bear Lake took it to heart when her constituents urged her to work across the partisan aisle and find creative ways to get more for less from government.

Maybe that's where she went wrong.

On March 31, McFarlane lost her Republican Party's blessing for a fourth term. It went instead to House Majority Leader Matt Dean of Dellwood, a partisan powerhouse whose neighborhood was linked with what was largely McFarlane's old district in newly drawn District 38B.

At age 46, Dean is 15 years McFarlane's junior. He's been in the House one term longer. He's a more visible legislator. As his caucus' floor general, he's at the microphone daily on the House floor arguing his party's case. He's mentioned as a future candidate for higher office.

All of that worked against McFarlane at her party's endorsing convention, she believes. So did this: She'd carved out a role as "connector and collaborator" with DFLers, in hopes of making government work better.

When DFL Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth organized a bipartisan Redesign Caucus in 2010, McFarlane agreed to be a cochair. When House control shifted in 2011, McFarlane succeeded Marquart as that caucus's leader.

She's chief sponsor of the Redesign Caucus's most significant piece of legislation to date, the Minnesota Accountable Government Innovation and Collaboration Act, better known (thankfully) by its acronym, MAGIC.

The MAGIC Act is the best stab yet at turning years of Capitol talk about streamlining and redesign into action in Minnesota's 87 county seats. In a nutshell, it invites counties or groups of counties to experiment with new, cost-saving ways to do government's work, without first having to run to the Legislature to ask "Captain may we?"

It waives state rules and regs for pilot projects, provided their goals and performance measures pass muster with a relevant state agency. Up to two projects per county and 10 per state agency are allowed. They are required to report their results to the state so that success stories can be replicated elsewhere.

Paul Fleissner, Olmsted County Community Services director, said his county's experience with cases of chronic chemical dependency illustrates the need for MAGIC.

The Rochester-area county wanted to quit paying again and again for futile chemical-dependency treatment for hard-core alcoholics, Fleissner said. County officials determined that tax money would be better spent stabilizing other aspects of those people's lives -- on housing, food, primary health care and, where possible, employment.

Getting state permission to try took two years, he said. Had MAGIC been law, the changes would have been good to go in a few months. "Government's got to move more quickly, just like business," he said.

But, true to government form, MAGIC hasn't moved quickly at the Capitol. It won the Senate's approval last May 20 on a 62-1 vote. But it stalled this year in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Bills can languish at the Legislature for lots of reasons, spoken and unspoken. The fact that the Ways and Means Committee is chaired by Majority Leader Dean's House floor seatmate, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, may or may not have had anything to do with MAGIC's delay.

The fact that McFarlane hasn't ruled out challenging Dean in the Aug. 14 GOP primary may or may not have entered into Holberg's MAGICal thinking. A query to Holberg's office was not answered; a GOP caucus spokeswoman said she expects the bill to move soon.

From Fleissner's vantage in Olmsted County, the bill's delay looks fishy. After all, MAGIC has garnered resolutions of support from all 87 counties -- a rare and impressive feat.

"I don't understand," he said. "Everybody talks about government reform, but we're passing constitutional amendments. ... We seem to be missing out on the true reform we need."

My concern is that in 2013 and beyond, the Legislature will be missing the bipartisan reformers it needs to get things done when government is divided. (In Minnesota, isn't it always?)

McFarlane's fate could become the stuff of Capitol lore -- particularly if the MAGIC bill goes poof! this year. A cautionary tale will be told: Don't work too closely with the enemy camp. Don't bill yourself as a "connector and collaborator." Don't make bipartisan reform your priority.

You'll shorten your career if you do. And that's what matters -- not actually enacting positive changes for Minnesotans. Isn't it?

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. Her blog is Minnesota Matters.

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