Wednesday, January 18, 2006

COLUMN -- Is it possible to make Minnesota a better place without raising taxes?

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:49 AM |  

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

David Strom, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, ticks off three scenarios that we Minnesotans face when state government finds itself in a budget crunch.

Minnesotans might pay more taxes and not receive additional benefits. The flip side is no new taxes and reduced services. The third scenario is the political compromise — pay a little more and get a little less.

"Those are three crappy choices," Strom said. "In other parts of your life, choices aren't all bad like that. People pay less and they get more."

In the private sector, the productivity revolution has been under way for some time, and people know it. They're executing it. A major frustration with government is there seems to be no evidence that bureaucrats have gotten the productivity memo.

The Pawlenty administration's "Drive for Excellence" is producing some evidence and the potential for a fourth, "less crappy" scenario for taxpayers — no new taxes and more direct benefit. It is possible to pay for a better Minnesota without raising taxes.

In his 2003 State of the State address, Gov. Tim Pawlenty outlined a vision to make state government faster, better and more efficient. According to Dan McElroy, senior adviser on innovation to the governor, the administration's strategy is three-pronged: break down organizational silos, make better use of technology, and reinvent processes. There is plenty of success to date.

"We envision Minnesota's agencies and services as one enterprise," McElroy said. "The administration is consolidating similar functions performed by many agencies (accounting and data processing, for example) into an efficient, enterprise structure. The result is more resources for providing front-line service to Minnesotans."

Using the Internet to store documents and to enable public access to those documents and allow taxpayers to file forms electronically is saving millions of dollars and shifting resources from backroom administration to direct citizen interaction.

Some of the best reinventing process efforts are taking place at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, where statistical and methodological tools familiar to the private sector are used to improve workflows and better respond to people who must deal with the agency.

For example, permits to discharge treated wastewater into a lake, river or stream should be revised and reissued every five years. Just a few years ago, the MPCA reissue cycle was seven to 15 years with permit requests arriving faster than the agency could process them. A "Discovery" team diagramed the process for evaluating permits, gathered data, improved the process and measured and tracked cycle times. Today the backlog on discharge permits is zero and the agency is approaching its target of 180-day turnaround time.

"We accomplished this service improvement with no new money and no new headcount," said Sheryl Corrigan, commissioner of the MPCA. It's the fourth scenario — no new taxes, better service for taxpayers.

The state's "Drive to Excellence" is off to a good start, but let's hold the champagne, step back and look at two important big-picture questions: Can we maintain the momentum? Improving the efficiency of government is necessary, but is it sufficient?

"Transforming government requires a culture change," McElroy said. "As the enterprise mindset is inculcated in state employees, hopefully it becomes a nonpartisan carryover from administration to administration."

Hopefully — but that's only part of the equation. As Corrigan notes, "Senior leadership must support a continuous improvement effort."

Unfortunately, the bias in election years is grandiose policies. No candidate runs on reducing turnaround time on discharge permits, yet the essence of good governance is motivating the efficient operation of day-to-day government functions that touch people. That, too, is the measure of political candidates.

Make that "legitimate" government functions. Improving efficiency of government is not sufficient to ensure good government. Consolidating backroom functions of the agencies granting some 600-plus licenses required by the state is efficient, but also someone must ask "Are all 600-plus licenses really necessary?"

That brings us back to my conversation with Strom. Unlike private sector businesses, government has no competition and therefore no urgent, external pressure to be efficient or limited. In lieu of competition, the Taxpayers League's much-maligned "No New Taxes" pledge pressures government to be more efficient, which the Pawlenty administration is proving can be done. Pledging no new taxes also forces the re-evaluation of government activities and weaning the state off spending on what the governor has called the "fun stuff." On the latter, the jury on the Pawlenty administration is still deliberating.

Category: Column, Local Politics, Tax Policy, Taxpayers League