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Lori Sturdevant: Streamlining Minnesota

Date Published: 05/01/2009

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Lori Sturdevant: Streamlining Minnesota
Businesses seldom come to the Capitol to congratulate government on a job well done. But this year's brutal economy has business voices sounding more sharply critical than ever of government's way of doing the public's business.

Longtime Minnesota Chamber of Commerce executive Bill Blazar described the attitude this way: "Employers' expectations are that whether it's state government, local governments, or the vendors who live off government payments, they will deliver high-quality services at the same or lower price" going forward.

It's the society-wide version of the old Target sales motto: Expect more, pay less. Employers say they have been living by that imperative for the past decade, whittling overhead and improving employee productivity to stay ahead of the global competition. Blazar said employers want to see more evidence that the enterprises their taxes finance -- hospitals, schools, transportation and more -- are just as intently pursuing efficiency.

"I'm not arguing that you have to run government like a business," Blazar said. That disclaimer needs to be writ large. What government "sells" is in greatest demand when its revenues are falling -- a situation no entrepreneur experiences.

But, Blazar said, "nobody in their right mind would go out of their way in tough times to penalize their customers, either by giving them less or raising their prices, when there are so many other options available" for saving money. His suggestions: Start now to negotiate job-saving contracts with public employees unions. Move to centralized purchasing and human resource operations. Combine county offices into regional clusters. Stop subsidizing college tuition for affluent people.

Brian Myres, head of U.S. sales for ING Direct based in St. Cloud, had a few more ideas when I spoke with him for my Feb. 15 column. He heads a citizen task force on city government efficiency and effectiveness. The panel is discovering that there's only so much one city can do on its own.

"The real win would be combining some of the huge bureaucracy in all these local governments we have," Myres said. "Look at the police administration, the sheriffs' administration. [St. Cloud spills into Stearns, Benton and Sherburne counties.] Think about the whole title and registration business. Every county has its own auditor, treasurer, recorder. Each county has a separate operation to file a deed and collect the fees.

"Counties were set up to be no bigger than the distance a farmer could drive a horse and buggy on a round-trip in a single day. Aren't we a little bit beyond that?"

Blazar said employers are convinced that a desire to play politics with budget deficits -- by both parties -- has stood in the way of more efficient government. Let that be a hint to state pols: The plum of business favor might go next time to the politicians who get serious about streamlining Minnesota.


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