Fiscal solutions require bipartisan accord
The late historian James Harvey Robinson noted that "Partisanship is our great curse. We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one or the other." Unfortunately, that assumption often results in decision-making that satisfies political expediency at the expense of good public policy.
What Robinson said decades ago applies equally -- and locally -- in 2010. As this year's state legislative session commences, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle will again have an opportunity to shed the cloaks of political partisanship and work together toward the critical goal of solving the state's fiscal mess. It's an opportunity not to be wasted.
Due in part to an economic slump of mammoth proportions, our state finds itself in dire financial straits with ballooning deficits and a shrinking revenue base. Minnesota is clearly at a tipping point. Many objective measures of how well we are doing in maintaining our quality of life indicate we are slipping compared to other states, most or all of which face similar budget constraints.
During budget-balancing discussions in the 2009 legislative session, though, the governor and legislative leaders couldn't even agree to disagree. Rather than constructively addressing disastrous financial conditions, they seemed to be engaged in little more than a competition to determine which party could win the most political points in any given news cycle.
They engaged in a fiercely partisan fiscal stalemate that -- for local government entities -- resulted in costly budget shifts and dramatic cuts in aids and credits for the short term, and failed to offer long-term solutions for what appears to be a chronic budget deficit affecting all government services.
While such a stalemate made for good political theater, it did little to address the future economic fortunes of our state or to ensure continued provision of public services so key to our quality of life. Meanwhile our public school districts, along with county and city governments, labored to make ends meet while trying to keep property taxes reasonable for residents struggling to balance their own budgets.
As representatives of these local governments, we are very concerned not only with the effects of ill-advised aid cuts, but also with the reality that the current system of funding vital public services is unsustainable. After each round of Local Government Aid reductions and state payment shifts we see an increasing number of examples of how public services -- from education, to social services, to public safety, to public works, to park and recreation services -- are being dramatically reduced. This has real impact on the everyday lives of our state's residents.
We sincerely hope that, at a point in time when it seems partisan politics and one-upmanship rule the day, there are still at least two goals we can all agree on and aspire to: reversing the slide, and once again improving quality of life in our state and in all of our Minnesota communities. Achievement of those goals benefits Minnesotans of all ages, all ethnicities, all religions, all occupations, and all political persuasions.
Economists are increasingly saying that the economy after the Great Recession will be very different from that of the past few decades. For the public sector, this means more complex choices; it's no longer a question of whether we should cut spending or raise taxes, as some would have you believe.
In reality, the future provision of public services in our state will likely involve both. And, we can't stop at that. The state-local fiscal relationship that once provided a stable foundation for good government in our state has badly eroded, and needs immediate repair. State and local governments should be working together, rather than as adversaries, to clarify roles and responsibilities in providing and financing public services.
The solutions to the problems of balancing the budget while still continuing to fund vital local government services will certainly not come easily. Our state leaders are faced with incredibly difficult challenges. How they choose to respond to those challenges will determine whether they leave a legacy of honorable and constructive statesmanship or one of ineffective politics-as-usual.
Ardell F. Brede is president of the League of Minnesota Cities, Jon Evert is president of the Association of Minnesota Counties and Jacquelin K. Magnuson is president of the Minnesota School Boards Association.