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State may loosen mandates to help communities save

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Students arrive for a tour at the state Capitol
A group of students from Edina brave winter weather on a recent visit to the Minnesota State Capitol building in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

With the state facing a projected $4.8 billion deficit in the next two-year budget cycle, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the time is right to reform and streamline government. 

Pawlenty said one of the changes he's looking at is relief from state mandates for cities, counties and school districts.

"We have repeatedly asked the counties and others if there are certain mandates that you think are cumbersome or inefficient or unfair or burdensome or dramatically underfunded, and you want to be relieved of those. Give us a list. We haven't received it yet, this year or last year or anytime we've asked for it. So, it's pretty clear to us they don't want to say which ones they want to eliminate. So we will give them the option," Pawlenty said.

During a recent news conference, Pawlenty provided a brief glimpse at his proposal. The Republican governor said he wants to give city councils, county boards and school boards a chance to opt out of burdensome state mandates, as long as the move doesn't result in a cost to the state.

"Let's take a look at these. Are they still serving the intended purpose. If they're not, let's make sure that we can have some flexibility and adjusting there," said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, president of the Association of Minnesota Counties. 

He said county leaders need more flexibility in delivering state-mandated services. The way McDonough sees it, counties can do some jobs better and cheaper if restrictive state requirements are lifted. 

McDonough said under current state law, counties are told how much to spend on mental health services each year, with no regard for the demand for such services.

"We have 17 counties in Minnesota that were sanctioned last year because they didn't spend that minimum amount of dollars they had to spend on mental health. They didn't spend it because they didn't want to. They didn't spend it because they didn't need to," McDonough said.

Some of the state organizations that represent public education have joined forces to work on the mandate issue. 

Scott Croonquist of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts said a mandated opt-out is an appealing idea in a time of tight budgets.

"There are numerous mandates, and many of which maybe are now outdated, that might of made sense at one time, but now, because of changing circumstances, just don't really seem to make sense anymore. So, we are doing our best to gather ideas and input from school leaders and asking them to give us examples of mandates that could be repealed or waived at least during the next session," Croonquist said.

Croonquist said one mandate that could go is a requirement that every school district spend at least 2 percent of its state funding on staff development. 

He said school districts could also save money with fewer paperwork and reporting requirements.

Republican Representative Marty Seifert of Marshall, the minority leader in the Minnesota House, said he wants to relieve local government of every mandate they can think of. 

Seifert said mandates are one of the most common complaints he hears. 

"If a local governing unit wants to relieve itself of a mandate, let them vote to do so and then the citizens will hold them accountable. We may have to look and see if there are any health or safety issues related to that, obviously," Seifert said.

Democrats seem to like the idea, too. But Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark of St. Cloud said local governments will still have to meet the intended outcomes of state-funded programs.

"Let's face it. There are some good reasons for some mandates. Part of it is we want to make sure that we have some particular level of services, so that it doesn't matter where you live that you will at least get a minimum amount of service," Clark said.

Clark said legislative committees will be reviewing hundreds of mandates as they work on a new state budget in the coming months. She said local officials are already providing legislators with lists of suggestions.