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Viewpoint: Legislative best practices includes teamwork

"Common sense is seeing things as they are, and doing things as they should be done." -- Anonymous

The challenging economic climate is forcing lawmakers at every level to look for ways to squeeze out savings.

It's never been more important to ensure taxpayers are a getting good value. By the same token, there's never been a better opportunity to reform the way government operates.

One of the most promising areas of reform is to encourage more service sharing and joint purchasing of items ranging from food and supplies, to payroll, IT and other administrative services, to transportation.

Service sharing can help school districts and local governments save money, reduce duplication, and maximize economies of scale. It's good government at work.

A bipartisan bill we've authored would encourage more service sharing and joint procurement. Started as a way to help school districts and charter schools, the idea has been so well received that at the suggestion of State Auditor Rebecca Otto, we expanded it to include cities, townships, counties and the state.

There is already a tremendous amount of service sharing occurring throughout Minnesota.

Successful examples include the Southwest Service Cooperative in Marshall, the Northwest Service Cooperative in Thief River Falls, intermediate school districts and other cooperatives where school, city, county, and other governmental agencies team up to reduce costs and create greater efficiencies for their members.

What's missing however, is a central hub to share information about what works and what doesn't. Our bill would fill that void by creating a clearinghouse or "best practices center." Perhaps a more fitting name would be a "good government center."

At little or no cost to the state, information would be available through a website created and maintained by the state auditor's Office. With the click of a mouse, schools and other local units of government could learn about, adapt, and apply information about everything from quality vendors to food suppliers to curriculum.

A wide range of stakeholders including the Minnesota School Boards Association, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, as well as regional organizations including service cooperatives, local chambers of commerce, education districts, other joint powers organizations, and business interests have thrown their support behind the idea.

A great deal of that support came because rather than taking a top-down approach, we actually listened and learned about the great things already happening.

Unlike other proposals that have been introduced this year, our bill doesn't impose additional mandates on schools and local entities to share services in a prescribed way, nor does it require them to hire consultants to find ways to cut costs, and then divert a portion of the savings to the consultants.

We simply found a way to connect the dots, so that not only are we providing a valuable tool to improve communication among government entities; we're recognizing them for their success.

Sometimes the best ideas are already right in front of us -- we just need to take time to listen, and then apply a little common sense to make them better.

This simple, common-sense legislation was created with intensive bipartisan input and cooperation. It doesn't employ top-down directives, but relies instead on keeping local control in the hands of decision-makers closest to the people they represent.

Most important, it has the potential to produce dramatic cost savings and better service for Minnesotans looking for assurance that they're receiving a good value for their tax dollars.

That's good government at its best. A few more common sense ideas like this one could help our bottom line.

Rep. Marsha Swails (DFL-Woodbury) and Rep. Carol McFarlane (R-White Bear Lake) are the co-chairs of a bi-partisan legislative task force charged with making service sharing recommendations to the Legislature.