Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Republicans, DFLers try to reform government — from different directions

House Republicans are offering up reforms to save state government a lot of money. DFLers and Gov. Mark Dayton have their own reform ideas to help balance the budget. That’s the problem.

Keith Downey
Rep. Keith Downey

Reporters were listening as hard as they could.

Rep. Keith Downey, the reform czar of the Republican legislative majority, was speaking as earnestly as he could.

So the outcome of this 90-minute, terribly serious dialogue about reform and money?


Maybe it was this: DFL claims to the contrary, Republicans insist they’re not using “funny money” in their approach to balancing the state’s budget.

Or maybe it was this: Despite implications by Republican legislative leaders, Republicans aren’t turning to outside consultants to come up with numbers that differ from the fiscal notes prepared by the state’s Office of Management and Budget.

Or  maybe it was this: House Speaker Kurt Zellers believes that Republican reform proposals could save the state a minimum of $200 million a biennium or a maximum of  $500 million.

Or maybe it was this: Reform is in the eye of the beholder. As it turns out, everybody wants reform. Republicans, DFLers, unions, chambers of commerce. It’s just that they can’t agree on what reform best solves the problem.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that we should have done reform a long time ago but it’s the other side that blocks it.

Arguing over ‘savings’
Back up for a moment. In case you haven’t been keeping track of all the moves of our political heroes, Republicans and DFLers and the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton have been arguing for months about some of the “savings” Republicans have been claiming in their approach to balancing the budget.

DFL legislators and the administration consistently have accused Republicans of  “making up” bottom line figures when they haven’t liked dollar amounts known as fiscal notes provided to them by the non-partisan Office of Management and Budget.

Zellers, who joined Downey Wednesday morning in talking about Republican reform proposals, said that all Republican-inspired legislation is now using the historically approved fiscal notes, even if Republicans still don’t believe all of those numbers.

Zellers said that the administration and Republicans now disagree over only $150 million, a minuscule amount in a $34 billion to $37 billion budget.

Well, he did add, that the governor and Republicans also have a little $300 million disagreement about a waiver the Republicans want the federal government to grant regarding health care for the poor. The administration says there’s no chance the feds will grant the waiver. Republicans are claiming the waiver as a bottom-line savings.

GOP reforms
But set aside the health care debate and go back to the reforms being pushed by Republicans.

These reforms would cut back on the number of state employees, turn loose private vendors to track down tax cheats, turn loose technology to track down Medicaid cheats, cut the number of vehicles in the state fleet and consolidate such things as human resources operations in the state.

There’s nothing headline grabbing in any of these proposals. Nothing new, either, Downey admitted.

Downey pointed to a 1995 study done during the administration of Gov. Arne Carlson that predicted that there were fundamental structural problems in the state budget.

“The time to act is now,” the report said.  “….After 2010 the proportion of Minnesotans of working age will begin to decline, while the dependent population, children and elderly people, will proportionately increase.”

Downey read those lines from the 1995 study, raised his eyebrows, and said that 15 years ago students of government, economics and demographics understood that “2010 would be the tipping point.”

“We’ve been putting off [reform] for 15 years,” said Downey. “The time to act is now.”

Downey was critical of Dayton for not offering “reform” in his budget proposal.

Different directions
But again that nagging problem. Everybody wants to reform in a different direction.

The Dayton administration — and DFLers — claim that moving health care for the state’s poorest to the federal system, as Dayton did with the stroke of a pen shortly after taking office, is one of the greatest health care reforms in state history. More people will receive better care than ever before, they argue.

Republicans don’t believe that’s reform. They say it’s Obamacare and that it’s bad.

 In the name of reform, Republicans expect the governor to rescind his first act and go back to a “reform” that looks like a scaled down version of  what Minnesota’s offered in the past.

A smaller example of how different people view reform differently.

Republicans in the House and Senate are pushing something called “tax analytics.” In their words, this is a combo package of “hardware, software and data methodologies to identify and prioritize potential audit candidates and collection efforts.”

Not surprisingly, given Republican mistrust of public employees and the GOP’s faith in the private sector, this reform Republicans are calling for would require the government to hire private consultants to interpret the sophisticated data gathered by the new technologies.

They claim that Wisconsin set up a pilot project using these technologies in 2007. The data identified $5.85 million in “probably successful audits” which resulted in collecting $5.45 million. Wisconsin has since expanded the program.

Interestingly, though, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees has suggested many ways for state government to reform and save money. One of the MAPE ideas that was accepted by Gov. Tim Pawlenty was to step up operations in collecting state income taxes, not by outsourcing but by hiring more Department of Revenue staff. That “reform” was made and brought in many times more than the $5.45 million from Wisconsin.

In fact, MAPE long has suggested that the state could save millions every year by cutting the number of contracts to outside vendors and using the professionals currently on state payrolls to do the work.

When the MAPE reforms were brought to Zellers and Downey Wednesday, Zellers rolled his eyes.

As much as Republicans like to compare government to business, there was a big admission from Downey Wednesday.

Government and business really aren’t comparable.

“It’s a big battleship we’re trying to turn,” Downey said. “One person doesn’t get to turn the ship. It’s not a business. There’s not a CEO who gets to make the decision.”

And so they struggle on. One pol’s reform is another pol’s Obamacare. One pol’s job-killing tax increase is another pol’s tax-code reform.