State Begins Government Innovation

Some Minnesota legislators entered 2010 with hopes of redesigning state and local government, with an eye on efficiency.

Nearly halfway through the year, they have some councils, boards and the like looking into the issue, but still are looking for the redesign.

In light of a state budget deficit some predict will be north of $5 billion next year, those dreams take on a new importance. A more efficient government, most say, means more bang for each tax dollar.

"In my mind, I think this is the light at the end of the tunnel," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said about a handful of proposals that are being launched. "I thought we had a very good start."

Getting off the ground now, or later this summer, are:

— A council to spur more cooperation among governments at all levels.

— The Council on Local Results and Innovation, a group charged with the task of finding innovative ways for cities and counties to provide services and spread those ideas around the state.

— A working group given the job of simplifying the property tax system.

— An effort to collect ideas from Minnesotans about how to improve government at all levels, with a goal of producing a number of bills to be considered by the 2011 Legislature.

Marquart and others in the ad hoc "redesign caucus," that gave itself the assignment of finding better ways to run government, had hoped to pass major bills this year.

"As we got into it, we realized what a monumental task that was before us," Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said.

So, now, 2011 is to be the redesign year.

The task is made harder by political rifts, emphasized by this year’s campaigns.

"Doing things in a bipartisan manner runs up against political consequences," Urdahl said, citing an effort that failed when rural lawmakers of both parties tried to draw up bipartisan proposals.

Still, redesign lawmakers say, the massive budget deficit that they face could draw them together as they hunt ways to both manage the budget and make government more efficient.

"With new problems come new opportunities," Urdahl said.

One area that Urdahl long has discussed is that water issues are handled by five state departments.

"Maybe there is a way to streamline or consolidate those agencies," Urdahl said.

One new law establishes a council to find ways to influence governments — state, local, schools — to work together better. Some existing laws actually make that difficult.

Marquart said the council will look at those legal obstacles.

Rep. Marsha Swails, DFL-Woodbury, said the council, in a bill she co-authored, also will look at simple issues such as why more cities cannot accept credit cards. A big issue the "collaborative governance council" will study is why many governments in an area do the same thing.

Examples of avoiding duplication that lawmakers have heard about include plans for law enforcement agencies in a region to combine into one dispatch center instead of each agency maintaining its own.

Most of the efforts are aimed at local governments, said Tim Flaherty of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. "The cities and the counties seem to be the target for all of this."

With the state sending local governments $3 billion every two years, Marquart said, taxpayers have a right to know what they are getting for that money.

Most of the new efforts use carrots more than sticks, added the coalition’s Steve Peterson.

Items discussed in legislative committee hearings illustrate the difficulty in establishing goals for local governments, Peterson said.

For instance, one discussion was about setting a statewide goal for how quickly emergency services should respond to a call. The right answer could vary widely among communities, given different geographies, population and finances.

"It gets a little tricky on a lot of these indicators," Peterson said.

With all of the meetings to come later this year, there remains one key, Marquart said. "Legislators have to have the courage to put these things in action."