Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Education Minnesota president Tom Dooher deserve a Memorial Day weekend in their own company, locked in the Capitol's darkened hallways until they can agree on a plan to accept up to $175 million in federal education grant money.
They managed to blast away at each other during the final weeks of the just-concluded legislative session. Pawlenty ended the session with a blistering attack on Democrats and the state's teachers union before deciding not to apply for the grant money.
Dooher, despite the protests of even some DFLers, wouldn't budge on alternative licensing of midcareer professionals who want to become teachers. And Pawlenty wouldn't give any ground on his long-standing position of aligning teacher pay and evaluations, dumping the tenure system and alternative licensing.
Both were heartily congratulated by their ardent constituents. But it's the neediest kids and the most troubled schools who lost out. Administrators at the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts, which are posting the worst results and the highest percentage of disadvantaged kids, were begging for the federal help, which would have meant more resources and new promising approaches.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Minnesota Business Partnership supported a reform package that could have gotten Minnesota into the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" program. Instead the federal money will nourish New York, Tennessee, Delaware and other states where business, labor and education interests came together to make compelling applications and good-faith pledges to collaborate.
But not in Minnesota.
Pawlenty, an all-but-declared Republican presidential candidate, can boast he protected the public kitty from big-spending liberals and a hostile teachers union leadership. He balanced the budget through delaying school payments of $2 billion and $1 billion in one-time cuts, kicking the projected $6 billion budget deficit down the road for the next Legislature and governor.
Pawlenty also rebuffed a DFL health care plan that would have tapped more than $1 billion in federal money by switching uninsurable Minnesotans to Medicaid rather than an underfinanced, state-funded plan that covers poor, childless adults. Problem is, DFLers would have funded the state's share of the Medicaid expansion by a surcharge on other health care providers. And health care costs are the fastest-growing large driver of state spending.
Also, Pawlenty ignored the findings of his 2009, business-led tax reform commission that recommended lowering and expanding the sales tax to clothing and food, dropping the nominally high corporate income tax and other common-sense findings that also would have smoothed out the state's volatile stream of tax receipts into something more predictable. The DFLers were interested in packaging some of that with a rise in the state's highest marginal personal rate to 9.1 percent on household incomes over $200,000, the first increase since it was lowered to 7.85 percent in 1998.
Pawlenty wasn't going near anything, even it was revenue-neutral, that could be construed in any way as a "tax increase." Thus, nothing much got done.
'The place was toxic'
"It seemed like everybody was stuck in the mud over being an ideologue," said Duane Benson, the former head of the Minnesota Business Partnership and a former state senator. "The place was toxic."
Benson, a Republican, was known as a pragmatic legislator who stepped across the aisle with others a generation ago to do good deals. He worked with a DFL majority and governors who, at the end of the day, were willing to negotiate their way to yes. And go home without calling the other side names.
Here's hoping that our economic recovery grows faster and bigger than expected, which will help solve some of the budget crisis. There also may be a need for budget cuts and certain tax increases. We can be frugal. More importantly, we need to be smarter. The lowest-taxed states are not necessarily the best for business or the ones that produce the best workforces. Texas, Mississippi and Florida are in as deep or deeper holes than Minnesota.
The long-term solution will require more collaboration, leadership and courage.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • firstname.lastname@example.org