Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Minnesota 2020 Journal: Lipstick on a Shutdown Pig

March 16, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

The way to avoid future state government shutdowns is to avoid future government shutdowns.

Let me say this again. The way to avoid future state government shutdowns is to avoid future government shutdowns. Rather than passing legislation directing specific state programs to continue functioning during a cessation of state government operations due to government funding authorization’s absence and rather than presuming biennial shutdowns, policymakers should better prepare themselves to negotiate a state budget.

Last summer, Minnesota’s state government shut down for 20 days because state policymakers couldn’t compromise on a state budget before the previous budget authorization expired. Without legislation directing Minnesota to expend public resources, Minnesota’s state government shut down.

All but court-determined essential services were closed for 20 days in July 2011. State parks closed. State permitting offices closed. State regulatory oversight offices closed. State water quality monitoring services closed. The state office collecting job-related-injury statistics closed. State highway rest-stops, along with roadside assistance, were closed. Just to name a few.

The shutdown affected every Minnesotan without exception. It affected some more directly and more immediately than it affected others but make no mistake, every one of us felt it.

As the days passed, Minnesotans grew increasingly unhappy with state policymaker intransigence. Conservative state legislative majorities refused to yield. They insisted Minnesota’s next biennial budget balance the projected revenue shortfalls through program cuts alone. Conservative policymakers rejected modest tax increases on Minnesota’s very highest income earners, the group paying a lower proportional tax rate than middle and low-income earners. Instead, they continued a pattern of shifting community program costs to local property tax payers.

The compromise was disappointing. It yielded a 2012-2013 state budget, ending the shutdown, but at considerable cost to community and family stability. By borrowing against tobacco settlement bonds’ income and by delaying school transfer payments until the start of later fiscal accounting periods and leaving schools short of promised cash, Minnesota found, in effect, a new, high-interest short-term credit card to resolve the $1.5 billion difference between Governor Dayton’s budget and the conservative legislative majorities’ budget.

Conservatives insisted then and now that the shutdown caused no harm. That thinking lays behind SF 1843, Senator Al DeKruif’s (R-Madison Lake) bill keeping state parks and rec areas open during future shutdowns. It’s the public policy equivalent of painting lipstick on a pig.

Conservative ideology dismissing government’s relevance is a self-fulfilling property. Conservatives seek public leadership roles by insisting that government is broken. Then, in office, they reinforce their conclusions by cutting or eliminating community services while further denouncing government shortcomings leading to cyclical repetition.

Except that, during the shutdown, Minnesotans began to understand that Minnesota performs many functions that people want, support and take for granted. This isn’t big government telling us what or what not to do. Rather, we’ve collectively created government to carry out our desires. Since we have different needs and perspectives, our shared desire is a mixture of consensus and disagreement.

Directing that state parks remain open during a government shutdown is an attempt to mask conservative public policy’s true goal. It seeks to direct public benefits to fewer, select people at reduced or no cost to them. It has little if anything to do with state parks but everything to do with preserving conservative tax policy favoring Minnesota’s very highest income earners over Minnesota’s great majority.

The state-parks-open-during-shutdown bill is a dodge, offered as an attempt to boost future conservative policy negotiating options. It assumes that, somehow, people won’t notice that Minnesota’s state government isn’t functioning as long as Minnesotans can continue camping and fishing in state parks. In effect, this legislation is predicated on the idea that we’re clueless.

We’re not.

During the last shutdown, people were supremely displeased with the stand-off. Yet, they recognized that Minnesota’s projected public revenues couldn’t match Minnesota’s expressed desires. A strong majority supported a balanced approach, pairing cuts with tax increases. But, that’s not what happened. A tough deal became a raw deal.

Minnesotans want strong communities. Shutdowns can’t be mitigated. When policymakers focus on what really matters to Minnesota—jobs, schools, healthcare—they move Minnesota forward. Painting lipstick on a pig doesn’t change the pig; it only reinforces the effort’s absurdity.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.