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Commentary: Budget-planning bill aids creativity

As readers of this newspaper know, the first few weeks of the 2009 state legislative session have been dominated by discussion and debate about the state's budget shortfall, and the perilous condition of our nation's economy. These discussions have a profound effect on the work of elected and appointed officials representing Minnesota's 855 cities. Even during a major recession, the need for city services, like police and fire protection, libraries and snow-plowing, continues.

To help Minnesota city governments and their residents cope during these tough economic times, the League of Minnesota Cities has lobbied for preserving Local Government Aid and mending state-local fiscal relations, reducing costly mandates for local governments and helping cities think of creative ways to generate revenue while balancing budgets.

All of these initiatives are designed to help ensure that residents of our cities continue to receive quality public services, and to help city officials provide those services in the most efficient way possible.

One piece of League-supported legislation, though, seems to have received a disproportionate amount of media scrutiny, sparking concern in the editorial pages of this newspaper and several more throughout the state. Senate File 1121, would extend authority to cities to keep preliminary budget-planning documents private -- this is the same authority currently granted to the governor, the state Legislature, state agencies and state departments.

Under a provision of the state's Government Data Practices Act, state officials are not required to make public their preliminary drafts or discussion notes about budget preparation. State employees and elected officials are allowed to brainstorm and submit their budget ideas without fear of being publicly humiliated or associated with a controversial idea submitted for brainstorming purposes only.

For example, discussions of controversial measures that ultimately are not included in a final budget -- like jettisoning popular services and programs, eliminating staff positions, or even gutting entire departments -- are protected from premature disclosure.

SF 1121 was born when city officials from League member cities met last summer to develop a legislative agenda, and expressed a desire for cities to share the same Government Data Practices Act standards currently utilized by the governor, the Minnesota House and Senate, and all state agencies and departments. SF 1121 would provide city staff the opportunity to freely discuss and brainstorm options early in the city budget-planning process, and create a comfortable forum for the exchange of initial ideas and suggestions.

Curiously, newspaper stories and editorials have seized on SF 1121 as if the end goal is to purposefully suppress public data. They did not emphasize the intended goal -- establishment of a process to allow local government officials opportunities to creatively brainstorm budget-balancing solutions. Nor did media reports emphasize that the bill would simply permit city governments the same budget-planning discretion as the state.

Further, none of the media accounts have adequately explained that even if SF 1121 becomes law, city budget-planning processes will continue to provide frequent opportunities -- as they always have -- for citizen input beyond the early planning stages.

While the League respects newspaper editorial boards for taking a stand on this position, we are concerned that the origins and purpose of SF 1121 are being underreported. As a consequence of intense media criticism, we have been unable to have a public hearing on the bill to explain our intended purpose and discuss the merits of the idea.

Although the bill may never be enacted into law, we should be having more dialogue about ways to improve creativity and innovation in government, rather than simply dismissing ideas without a chance for thorough discussion.

The League is and always will be a staunch advocate for accountability in government. We envision a future where all cities thrive, take advantage of new opportunities and successfully meet ongoing challenges. We also believe that if the budget preparation provision of the Government Data Practices Act has been deemed useful and necessary for state government, then Minnesota cities deserve the same consideration.

Jim Miller is the executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities.