I trust it's the chance to thaw out that persuaded Gov. Tim Pawlenty to park his hockey skates and spend this weekend in Florida with his presidential favorite, John McCain. What other attraction could there be?

"It's between Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty for McCain's running mate!" an excitable Republican operative assured me last week.

Ah -- so that explains Huckabee's defense of his gubernatorial record a few weeks back: "We had no bridges falling down in Arkansas."

Diverting as the presidential race is for state pols of both parties, permit a suggestion: before the Legislature convenes on Feb. 12, Pawlenty and legislators should direct their gazes east, to Wisconsin.

I know -- comparisons among states is so 1988. We're supposed to benchmark against Singapore now (and on educational attainment, we absolutely should).

But for Minnesotans, examining Wisconsin is a lot like looking in a mirror -- and every politician knows how important that is. These two states are extraordinarily similar in size, history, ethnicity, culture, even alcohol-consumption proclivities.

Since Wisconsin made a couple of big policy moves last fall, the Minnesotans in charge of big policies here ought to notice and ask themselves whether it's their move.

Gov. Jim Doyle, the conservative Democrat who's been in the drivers' seat in Madison since 2003, paid a visit to the Star Tribune two weeks ago. He was in town to help Pawlenty promote his National Governors Association renewable energy program. But he couldn't resist telling us about the wonders of his state's new budget, which he very belatedly signed into law on Oct. 23. (No government shutdown there. They're not foolish enough to take their partisanship past the brink in Badgerland.) Excerpts of his remarks begin on page OP1 and jump to this page, below right.

In sum: Wisconsin is on a tear to cover nearly every citizen with affordable health insurance, give every 4-year-old access to a pre-kindergarten program and get every qualified high-school grad affordably enrolled in college, all by the end of this decade.

It's doing that by raising the cigarette tax $1 per pack, cutting state agency budgets, enlisting aid from homegrown philanthropists and generally redirecting the entire state enterprise toward human capital growth.

Let it be noted that Minnesota is no piker in either health-care or student-aid spending. (Let it be further noted that I didn't include early childhood education in that last sentence.) But Minnesota hasn't been mounting any surges in those directions.

That's because -- like a lot of states -- Minnesota spent the last four years trying to recover from the setbacks of 2002-03. Climbing out of a $4.5 billion hole in 2003 while under Pawlenty's strict "no new taxes" regime meant cutting eligibility for MinnesotaCare, the state's low-cost health insurance for the working poor, and allowing higher-ed tuition to rise at a double-digit pace for four straight years. Child care and early ed programs took nasty cuts.

State spending rebounded some in the intervening years, but so did inflation and population growth. Adjust for inflation with the government purchases index, and per capita revenues available to state and local governments in Minnesota were actually lower in 2007 than in 2003 -- $8,009, compared with $8,289, according to the progressive think tank Minnesota 2020.

No wonder there's been little bragging about expanded government services west of the St. Croix.

Now, just when higher-education funding is back on track and the state is poised to get more Minnesotans insured, here comes money trouble. Just when the baby boomers are set to retire and the younger population that must replace them includes too many people lacking higher education and health care, here we go again.

"The battle for economic growth is not a civil war among the states anymore. It's a world war," write Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene in this month's "Governing" magazine. America's weapons aren't low costs and low taxes. They're "innovation, productivity, marketing and entrepreneurship," all of which depend on developing human talent.

If Minnesota is going to compete with Singapore, it needs to attend to its human capital like Wisconsin.

In about a month, Pawlenty and the Legislature will get a fresh accounting of how much trouble the economy is causing state government. Nobody last week was betting that the news will be good. The governor issued a statement that signaled his intentions: "We shouldn't take away the benefits of likely federal tax relief by imposing tax increases at the state level," he said.

Spoken like a GOP vice presidential candidate.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.