Editorial: Preventing shutdown

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 7, 2005

Amid the carnage that’s become the 2005 legislative session, there is a simple lesson legislators should learn that not only could reverse the trend of having special sessions, but result in passing a budget plan that more fairly funds the bulk of state government. The lesson is this: Tackle the biggest jobs first.

This year &045; and realistically every budget-building session &045; legislators and the governor should make their first assignments the drafting of the birth-to-12 education, and health and human services budget bills.

The reasons to do this are obvious.

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For starters, the inability to settle these two bills is the main reason for this year’s partial state shutdown and special session, not to mention much of the partisan bickering and accompanying legislative gridlock residents have come to despise the past few budget-building sessions. Yet rather than deal with them up front, legislators have procrastinated to the point of paralysis.

The biggest reason to address them immediately is their size. These two bills consume about 67 percent of the state’s general fund spending. The third- and fourth-biggest drains on the general fund are property tax aid and higher education, but combined they don’t even take a fifth of the general fund. Education and health and human services require two-thirds.

Just look at Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s original 2006-07 budget proposal. It called for $29.667 billion in general fund spending. Birth-to-12 education accounts for 40 percent of that. Health and human services consumes another 27 percent.

But while these fiscal giants languish amid the bickering, legislators and the governor deal with the small stuff: They adopt budgets for state government, which is 2 percent of the general fund. Public safety at 6 percent. Higher education at about 9 percent. And most recently, environment, agriculture and economic development, which combined equal about 2 percent.

Two other reasons to put education and health and human services first are the Minnesota Constitution, which mandates the state adequately fund education, and the humane realization that these bills help the state’s future generations as well as today’s most vulnerable residents.

As for education, it also would be immensely more helpful to school districts in planning a budget for the next school year. The current approach puts in limbo everything from class size to teacher retention. Not to mention staff resources are wasted by having to do a budget plan more than once.

Indeed, legislators and the governor already proved they can act quickly this year, when they adopted a bonding bill in early April and the higher education budget in late May. What would happen if they put education and health and human services bills ahead of those?

Legislators should try it in 2007. After all, it’s hard to imagine things turning out worse than they have this session.

&045; St. Cloud Times