Balancing the state budget in 3 1/2 hours. Almost.

What happens when you ask 30 people to sit down in Rochester for 3 1/2 hours and solve the state’s seemingly intractable budget problems?

It turns out they can’t entirely do it either (which is oddly reassuring in a way), but they do take a good stab at it, mostly arriving at an approach that doesn’t use one-time fixes like shifting K-12 money and does include revenue increases along with spending cuts.

They express a swell of interest in broadening Minnesota’s consumption taxes, for example, considering a tax on parts of the service economy that has grown outside the tax system — lawyer’s fees, perhaps, or accountant services.

And, as interesting as anything else, Tea Party member Cindy Maves and United Way official Dave Beal sit down at the end to talk about their differences.

The discussion Thursday evening at the Ramada Hotel in Rochester was the last of three that the Bush Foundation engineered this week just as the state government shutdown was ending and the dust was clearing from the budget shootout between DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders.

For the three — in Grand Rapids, Bloomington and Rochester — a total of 130 participants were chosen to represent a cross section of political philosophies. Broken into small groups of a half dozen or so, they were told to come to consensus on where they would have found $5 billion to solve the problem — a “citizens’ solution.” The goal was to treat the budget as more than just a math problem but to consider it an expression of philosophical principles that perhaps people can agree on.

In general, people preferred an approach that considered spending cuts, revenue increases and redesigning the way the state delivers some services. Tiny minorities said they preferred all-cuts or all-revenue increase solutions. One-time fixes were frowned upon. And trying some longer term structural ideas that Dayton and legislators declined to do, participants offered up a number of ideas: broadening the sales tax, merging higher education systems, eliminating mortgage interest deductions, cutting state employee numbers by 5 percent.

In Rochester on Thursday, people started out all over the map. Some shifted to come to agreement; some didn’t. As the small groups soldiered on, I heard various mutterings, exclamations and complaints.

“$5 billion? Really?”

“What about the Internet sales tax?”

“I’m kicking the can down the road.”

“I don’t believe we have to do this. We have more revenue than we did last year.”

“Everybody’s going to have to share some pain.”

“I lived in Indiana. That’s where you nickel and dime services.”

“Why does every county have to have its own jail?”

“Face to face at this table, it’s a lot harder to be an a—–e.”

“We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”

It was a like a condensed version of the last five months at the Legislature. And in the end, some small groups ironed out a compromise and some didn’t.

“Our big idea was the sales tax,” said participant Bradley Smoley. “We did balance it and we all like each other.”

Former revenue commissioner John James had perhaps prompted the notion early in the evening when he noted that one reason the state has a structural problem is that the economy has grown in directions that bypass the tax system — the service sector, for example.

At the table including Maves and Beal, there was no last-minute deal as the deadline passed. Maves was adamant that government should provide basic services and no more. Beal and others wanted to raise more revenue. Both said their differences were such that they could never reach consensus — decision by means of a vote, yes, but consensus, no.

“We learned it’s possible to reach a civil impasse,” Beal said.

In the end, Maves said she came to appreciate better other people’s interest in the sales tax. “I saw people analyze it differently.”

For Beal’s part, having the difficult conversation was a learning experience. “It’s possible to have these conversations, these kinds of disagreements without calling each other liars or evil or godless.”

As most of the crowd left the Ramada, Maves and Beal were still sitting, talking.

Not everyone was convinced the effort was really a level playing field. One participant, former GOP Rep. Fran Bradley, said he thought the exercise was predisposed to come up with a solution that would use a variety of approaches that included revenue, although even he said there is value in considering a consumption tax of some sort. Best part of the evening for him: “People could see this is complicated.”

While the effort may not have resulted in a single “citizens solution,” it did come closer to addressing long-term structural problems than the state’s leaders did. Perhaps it can inform the discussion when the math problem comes back in two years.

(Disclosure: MPR News is a partner with Bush in its InCommons initiative to find means of helping Minnesotans make connections and deal with challenges.)

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