Goal will be hard to reach

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 22, 2003

Closing the rest stops? That state budget-balancing idea, announced last week, is the latest in a series of showy cuts that may make it look like Minnesota bureaucrats are trying hard to save money but which is at best superficial. Getting Minnesota’s budget balanced is a tough job, only made tougher by that approach.

Governments, as they approach budget-cutting, have traditionally tried to make cuts as directly painful to taxpayers as possible. Unlike private business, government has nothing to lose by doing so and everything to gain. After all, the thinking goes, if these cuts are painful enough maybe the taxpayers will snap to their senses and buy into a tax increase.

That is a cynical thought process but one that is undoubtedly in the minds of many state department managers.

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It is a direct contrast to the way private businesses go about the job of balancing budgets. Because they have to be responsive to their customers, private businesses cut first and hardest in areas that have the least visible impact. They search hard for back-shop efficiencies and they usually find plenty of them. But government managers -- other than those few who are elected officials -- need not be particularly responsive to those they are supposed to serve. Taxpayers cannot vote with their wallets like customers do, unless they want to go to jail.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is faced with a tremendous challenge in balancing Minnesota’s budget. But his effort to do so without raising taxes is only hindered by decisions like last week’s that will close rest stops. Unless state government makes service its priority, and plans its cuts with that priority in mind, there is little chance that Pawlenty will achieve his goal.