If counties have a better idea, will the state let them try it?

In the drive to make local government more efficient and innovative in changing times, Minnesota’s counties are about to ask the state to loosen the reins.

Give us the right, they’re saying, to do things not prohibited in the law instead of just those things the law directs us to do. And for those things that state rules prevent, give us a flexible, accountable way to experiment without a long, cumbersome approval process.

Case in point: Todd and Crow Wing counties in central Minnesota, like most every county, know that a certain group of residents use a great variety of county-provided help, from social services to health care to corrections. They also know that communication among those government operations can be minimal, that applications for help duplicate each other and that rules prevent smart social workers from doing things they can plainly see would help people and save money.

So together they are trying to develop a project that would break down some of the barriers. Nathan Burkett, administrator for Todd County, gave this example.

A low income mother with a part-time job receives both medical assistance for health care and help from the county to pay for day care. Her employer offers her a full-time job. But if she takes it, her income will make her ineligible for medical assistance and for the day care subsidy and her pay increase will vanish. So why not give a county social worker the power to make a decision: take the woman off medical assistance and save the government some money, but let her keep the day care subsidy to make it worth her while to become fully employed?

Maybe it’s a good idea and maybe it’s not. Maybe it saves money but maybe it invites a greater likelihood of bad decisions. The point here is that to try it out requires the counties to go through a cumbersome and time-consuming state waiver process in a system whose bias is to say no, Burkett says.

That’s what the Association of Minnesota Counties wants to change with a bill it expects to introduce later in April.

Minnesota doesn’t rank very highly in measures of government innovation, says Ryan O’Connor, policy analyst for the association. “We’re trying to encourage innovation on an issue by issue basis,” letting local officials try to solve whatever transportation, social service or health care problems they think they can.

The proposal the association wants to float would introduce what is known as the Cooley doctrine — letting counties do things not specifically prohibited by law instead of letting them do only what the law dictates (that would be Dillon’s rule). It also wants to create a process that counties could use to set up a business plan for new service ventures, identify the desired outcomes and report to the state on the results.

Instead, for example, of making a county have a detox facility, O’Connor said, why not let it experiment with other ways to accomplish what really is the objective — getting drunk adults off the street? Instead of taking eight years to get approval for redesigning and then building a highway, why not cut the time and cost with a design-build experiment? In return for greater flexibility in such cases, the counties would be expected to provide accountability to the state when the data becomes available.

So far, the counties aren’t getting hammered with cuts to their state aid in the same way cities are in legislative discussion. But they do deliver a lot of services that likely will see other cuts in state money. So it will be interesting to see whether the state will grant some greater flexibility as the money shrinks.

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