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GUEST COLUMN: Reform must drive state budget

Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature will resolve the budget stalemate; the ledger will be balanced. We don’t yet know when that will occur, but the task will be accomplished. Policy-makers are obligated to do so under the State Constitution.

Less certain is whether the governor and lawmakers will make meaningful headway in reforming the way government delivers its services. That’s an essential part of the equation along with slowing the growth in spending if we are to sustain programs. Absent those two measures, the cycle of budget problems confronting Minnesotans will only intensify.

The buzzwords of government redesign and reform have swirled around the Capitol hallways this year in lockstep with the election mandate for policy-makers to focus on jobs and the economy. There’s plenty of ammunition for government to change the way it operates. Minnesotans are growing older and demanding more public services. At the same time, fewer Minnesotans are headed into the workforce to contribute the tax dollars to support these programs.

State Economist Tom Stinson for years has been warning about the changing demographics and their impact on the delivery of public services. He recently told an audience in Mankato that it’s time to accept the “new normal.”

“This is not about ideology; this is about chronology,” he said. “We’re not going back to the old normal. We’re headed toward the new normal. Even though we’ve recovered from the recession, we’re not going back to where we were.”

Redesign of operations is hard, and necessary, Redesign is also how successful businesses and other organizations survive — and thrive — in tough times.

The goals of the private sector and public sector need not be at cross-purposes. In fact, state government can take some lessons from the initiatives of its counterparts in local government. To that end, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce worked with local chambers to engage business leaders and citizens to examine the redesign of government services.

Chambers of commerce at Brainerd Lakes, Staples Motley Area and Long Prairie Area are working with Crow Wing and Todd counties to study the case management for individuals who access a variety of county departments. The goal is to streamline the process and make these people less reliant on public services. 

The Owatonna Area Chamber is working with its city to use the LEAN process to evaluate operations; the first department being reviewed is parks and recreation.

The Rochester Area Chamber worked with the city to develop and implement a more customer-focused approach for review and approval of various development requirements. 

These are but a handful of examples. One needs only to read newspaper headlines across the state to see how governments are collaborating to adjust to the new economic reality.

Similar successes can be found in state government, too. Washington state provides a case study of policy-makers taking bold measures to reduce costs and still preserve important and effective services.

Redesign of services alone will not solve the public sector’s financial challenges. There still must be a concerted effort to curtail the escalating overhead and operating expenses of government.

Change is inevitable in the delivery of public services. The public sector is increasingly mired in financial crises, and nothing indicates that the economy will grow us out of our problems.

We understand the challenges facing government. Businesses have experienced it firsthand. We also know that Minnesotans are an innovative bunch. The task can be accomplished with ingenuity and perseverance and doing more with less. Completing this assignment is essential for Minnesota to address its most pressing problems and build the infrastructure necessary to develop and grow our economy. 

David Olson is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.