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Minnesota 2020 Journal: A Shutdown Ain’t Nothin’ but a Shutdown

June 10, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

A government shutdown is a government shutdown. It’s not a blow against tyranny, a smartly delivered debating riposte or a playground taunt. It’s nothing more or less than exactly what it is, a cessation of state government activity. But, if you’re looking for greater deeper meaning, that one’s even simpler: state government shutdown represents elected representatives’ complete and utter failure in their duty to Minnesotans.

Let me recap the situation. Minnesota’s divided government is particularly divided on spending decisions. This complicates resolving Minnesota’s $5.2 billion budget deficit. Conservative policymakers control both the State House and the State Senate. They started the legislative session refusing to support revenue increases and ended on the same note.

Governor Dayton supports a balanced approach, pairing state program cuts while simultaneously raising taxes. He began with a $3.6 billion tax increase, targeted at Minnesota’s highest income earners. As session began drawing to a close, he slashed that by half. Dayton’s budget proposal cuts more spending but would raise $1.8 billion from the top 2% of Minnesota’s income earners.

In terms of negotiating dynamics, Dayton has repeatedly sought compromise and, by halving his own revenue increase proposal, worked to achieve it. State legislative majority caucus’ leaders, on the other hand, remain where they started. They’ve largely avoided using the language of compromise, complaining instead about process. Their strategy appears to be attempting to force Dayton to completely yield to their policy vision.

With no compromise agreement, Minnesota is well on the way toward a July 1 state government shutdown. A shutdown is a very realistic result. What happens and what will Minnesotans do?

That first question’s answer, at least in the public speculative sphere, is largely guided by the 2005 state government shutdown. For the most part, everyone assumes that the forthcoming shutdown will look and feel much like the last one. I’m not so certain.

In 2005, then-Governor Tim Pawlenty, the DFL-controlled State Senate and the GOP-run State House had a stand-off driven by disagreement over education and health/human services bill despite agreement on many other funding issues. A Minnesota Supreme Court appointed “special master” formally decided between essential and unessential state activities. Essential services stayed open; unessential services were shuttered.

If people remember that long summer week’s state government shutdown, they probably remember closed state parks and highway rest stops. Most Minnesotans haven’t yet paused to consider the impact of a full, “forced shutdown”. It's sort of like holding down your computer's power button; wait a few seconds, the computer shuts down and the screen goes black.

I don’t understand the point that conservative policymakers are trying to make. Well, sure, I understand that they’re advocating for smaller government and that they seem to believe that any action reducing government’s scope or reach is a good thing. Rhetorically, this is referred to as “starving the beast.” But, they’re not really after smaller government. Instead, they want to redirect government revenues to support some but not all of Minnesota’s communities. In other words, fewer Minnesotans will benefit from everyone’s contributions. It’s less government for many but more, and more helpful, government for a few.

Now, as a practical matter, state legislative conservative policymakers have backed themselves into a corner. It’s the logical consequence of an “all or nothing” strategy. Eventually, the choice comes down to “all” or “nothing.” Accepting a budget compromise—let’s say $1.5 billion in new state income tax-generated revenues—can’t be “all” when “all” can only mean no tax increases ever, period. Therefore, the legislative chambers’ conservative caucuses’ alternative is “nothing.” “Nothing” has led us to the present stand-off and, in a couple of weeks, to a state government shutdown.

Let’s be clear. A shutdown government makes life harder for everyone. There will be no winners, only gradations of losers. Everyone will suffer something. Some will suffer much. That’s no way to run a state.

So, what do we do?

The simple answer is found in Governor Dayton’s present proposal. Raise new revenues, bringing the total state and local tax burden borne by Minnesota’s highest income earners into closer line with what everyone else pays, and cut state spending. A balanced approach works precisely because it’s balanced. By its very nature, it’s a compromise which means it’s a deal that no one loves but everyone can accept.

To reach this point though, Minnesota’s policymakers need to focus on what really matters to Minnesotans. Public policy that prioritizes job creation, affordable healthcare, education and transportation infrastructure moves Minnesota forward. If policymakers are guided by Minnesotans’ values, they’ll find a way to compromise and avoid a disastrous state government shutdown. It’s still not too late.

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