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Partisan squabbling threatens Minnesota's reputation for good management
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House DFL leader Matt Entenza, left, and Republican Speaker Steve Sviggum personified the partisan standoff during the last legislative session -- in which lawmakers could not agree on any major action. That standoff worries observers who are concerned about Minnesota's governmental management. (MPR file photo)
A new report gives Minnesota a B+ for government performance -- putting the state in the upper cluster of top performers. But the non-partisan study also warned that recent gridlock at the Legislature could jeopardize that ranking and undo years of solid progress.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Government Performance Project assessed all 50 states on four levels: management of money, people, infrastructure, and information. Minnesota emerged with a composite B+, behind only Virginia and Utah, and tied with four other states.

But project editor Richard Greene says last year's legislative stalemate caught the attention of researchers. Greene says the squabbling was uncharacteristic for Minnesota -- and could be serious if it's not contained.

"Were Minnesota not such a historically well-managed state, this kind of thing would have been far worse for it," says Greene. "It's a state that was able to, at least for the short run, to some large extent, rest on its laurels."

Last year, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Gov. Tim Pawlenty found themselves unable to agree on the most pressing issues of the session. They left virtually empty-handed.

Don Kettl is a research director for the project, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. He says Minnesota wasn't alone in facing difficult choices last year. First, he says, states were still struggling with sluggish economies. Second, he says the federal government was pushing expensive mandates down to already cash-strapped states. But that, he says, wasn't all.

"And then the third thing is that we have this problem of divided government, with clear divisions between the reds and the blues," says Kettl. "And states like Minnesota that are very close -- it makes it that much harder to reach consensus about the other two problems."

The state's lowest score, a B, came in infrastructure management. The project notes that last year, Minnesota failed to pass a public works bill to pay for the upkeep of state buildings, college campuses, and other public investments. The project team warns that if that gridlock continues, the state could face a backlog of maintenance and repair that will weigh it down for years to come.

Were Minnesota not such a historically well-managed state, this kind of thing would have been far worse for it. It's a state that was able to, at least for the short run, rest on its laurels.
- Project editor Richard Greene

Acknowledging that, lawmakers this year have pledged quick approval for a bonding bill to finance public investments. Last week, the DFL-controlled Senate passed its bonding measure and few a days later took action on another legislative left-over -- filling funding deficiencies in a stop-gap budget bill.

"I think we've learned a lesson," says Sen. Ann Rest, the DFL assistant majority leader. "We are giving evidence of that, in the way in which we are willing to put aside personalities, petty differences. We're going to have disagreements, but I think we're on a path of not being disagreeable."

The bonding bill passed overwhelmingly 57-7, and the deficiency legislation was adopted unanimously. In the Republican-controlled House, Speaker Steve Sviggum also pledged to reach across the aisle. The House, too, has passed bipartisan deficiency legislation, and Sviggum says a bonding bill should be ready by the end of February.

The GOP majority was cropped in the last election from 81 seats to 68 -- barely enough to pass a bill. As a result, Sviggum says talk of cooperation has to be more than just talk. Sviggum says he'll need eight to 10 DFLers to join him to pass a new budget.

"They can't expect to just talk about being included and having ownership, and then not have that ownership follow through to votes for various difficult choices on the House floor. So it is kind of a two-way street," says Sviggum.

DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza says his members are more than willing to make tough choices and take difficult votes -- but only if their post-election strength is recognized.

"Republican leadership in the House in the last six years has kind of gotten used to the fact that they were going to kind of run the ship their way, and occasionally they might ask a couple of Democrats to help them. And that's not going to work anymore. The voters have made sure that with our even divisions that everyone is going to be in the game," says Entenza.

How that plays out remains to be seen. With the governor's budget released last week, House Republicans and Democrats retreated to their respective corners -- praising or criticizing right along party lines.