A shift has been detected lately in Capitol conversations about streamlining Minnesota counties and/or their services. The talk is no longer much about "whether." It's increasingly about "how."

That's crucial progress. But it also means that the real work is only beginning. It likely will take the combined pressure of a bad economy and a determined governor and Legislature to keep on track efforts to "right-size" the work of the state's 87 counties, in order to achieve better results for the tax dollar.

The work is much worth doing, even though it won't yield quick gain for the state's bottom line. The financial benefit that county restructuring promises would accrue to the counties and their property taxpayers. Done well, restructuring should help counties and the needy people they serve cope with state aid cuts that appear inevitable in the next few years.

The Legislature has before it county streamlining bills of two kinds:

Human services restructuring: Unlike many states, Minnesota assigns the administration of more than two dozen human services programs to its counties. That was a smart move 85 years ago, sparing the state from setting up scores of state offices over the years as government took on missions ranging from adoption of infants to burial of the poor.

But as some counties have dwindled to fewer than 10,000 people -- and Hennepin swelled past 1 million -- their varying ability to deliver services cheaply and well has become evident. In 1973, the Legislature invited counties to voluntarily join forces to get the work done. As a result, three southwestern and two southern counties put their entire human services operations together. Others began multicounty administration of particular services, in a variety of creative arrangements.

It wasn't enough to avoid a scolding by the Office of the Legislative Auditor in 2007. County-administered human services varied too greatly in cost and effectiveness around the state, the report said. The audit report urged more consolidation into multicounty units.

That's what Gov. Tim Pawlenty had in mind when, in January, he proposed that the Legislature put some teeth into its 1973 invitation: Consolidate human services administration into no more than 15 offices around the state, or lose an additional 25 percent of the program aid the state pays counties.

Since then, the governor wisely has backed away somewhat from that top-down approach. Counties rightly objected that forced consolidation of whole offices could needlessly rip apart the cost-effective service-sharing they already do. What's more, forcing consolidation of services that by their nature must be performed as locally as possible could prove more costly. Merger would simply add another layer of bureaucracy.

Counties deserve the ability to choose their partners, and to judge whether some services are best handled by large groups of counties or by a county acting alone. The option that counties should not have is to stand pat. This year's Legislature should set in motion a process that will result in many fewer free-standing, full-service human service departments in Minnesota counties by 2012.

County merger: St. Cloud legislators have introduced a bill that calls an old question: Would money be saved and services improved if their city sat in one county rather than three? Their bill would merge Stearns and Benton counties, and add to their combination the northwestern portion of Sherburne County.

The bill won't become law this year, said Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud. But it ought to move the St. Cloud county idea from idle talk to serious negotiations this year. A meeting of county officials and legislators in St. Cloud this morning is intended to consider how to proceed. What they decide could serve as a model for other parts of the state where fewer county boundaries might mean better and cheaper government.