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Don Davis, Published December 29 2008

Reform’s the word for upcoming session

ST. PAUL – One theme seems to be emerging for the upcoming 2009 Minnesota legislative session that gets under way on Jan. 6 – reform.

With a massive state budget deficit, there is widespread agreement that state spending practices must change.

“I think you are going to see multiple reforms talked about,” said Revenue Commissioner Ward Einess, a top aide to Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “This is a rare opportunity to do things that in the past would not be under consideration.”

Policymakers of both parties agree that Minnesotans who otherwise may not accept wholesale changes probably will now that the state faces what many predict to be a

$6 billion deficit, out of a two-year budget that tops $32 billion.

“This may be one of the rare opportunities” to make change, Einess said.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said lawmakers need to seize that opportunity.

“It really is difficult to eliminate any program once it is going,” he said. “But once you get into a critical period like this, you probably can, and the public probably will understand.”

It is a matter of looking at things differently.

“We need to set aside the traditional way we thought about things,” said Executive Director Jim Mulder of the Association of Minnesota Counties.

He has some ideas.

For instance, the state, counties, cities, townships and school districts need to work closer together, Mulder said. Instead of each entity holding on to its own turf, governments should break those artificial barriers, he said.

“Nobody cares what emblem is on the side of the snowplow,” Mulder said. “They just want the snowplow.”

He brought up the case of a California county where cities originally fought against combining their police departments with the county sheriff’s department. But when the sheriff took over all law enforcement, deputies patrolling cities drove cars with city logos and wore city uniforms.

Everyone was happy, Mulder said.

On a smaller scale in Minnesota, Kandiyohi County handles police dispatching duties for Big Stone County, about 40 miles away. It saves money, Mulder said.

“It requires people to work in a way that we are not used to,” he said. “It requires people to be very open and collaborative.”

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, agrees with Mulder and has proposed similar ideas.

He suggested “developing efficiencies of scale,” such as combining state and local law enforcement dispatch centers into 12 offices around Minnesota.

Such reform talk brings Drazkowski, one of the House’s most conservative members, into line with liberal Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, who has proposed legislation promoting cross-government cooperation.

Two Pawlenty-appointed commissions are due to report in coming weeks on their reform ideas. And he has invited what he calls the state’s top thinkers to a Jan. 5 summit to discuss the topic.

Every lawmaker has a different definition for reform.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, looks at ways to improve the property tax system.

“We have a real chance to do some real taxpayer reform,” said Marquart, chairman of the House property tax committee.

But Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, issued a couple of warnings about reform.

First, Eken said, many times reforming requires “some initial investment upfront.” That would be tough during the current recession.

Second, he said, government reforms often don’t save money right away. Immediate savings are a prime concern as lawmakers draw up a budget.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com