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A year after Minnesota’s historic three-week government shutdown, similar standoffs seem no less likely in the future

Lessons learned from shutdown

On July 14, 2011, Gov. Mark Dayton (center) spoke to the press along with Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers to announce that the Legislature and the governor’s office had reached a deal in principle to end Minnesota’s government shutdown. The deal was passed six days later in a special session. (Staff file photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

A year after Minnesota’s historic three-week government shutdown, similar standoffs seem no less likely in the future

Everyone agrees that last summer’s unprecedented three-week government shutdown was unnecessary and embarrassing. Tourists were shut out of state parks, lottery sales were halted, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in state prisons were canceled, and the liquor industry faced the threat of having its products removed from liquor stores and bars.

“I don’t think that anybody understood the scope of what it means to shut down a government,” said John Apitz, a lobbyist for Messerli & Kramer who has worked for former DFL U.S. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey and former GOP St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. “There were ramifications far beyond what they had dreamed of.”

But as the one-year anniversary passes, little has changed to discourage future budget standoffs from resulting in the same outcome.

There was no shortage of proposals put forth to either prevent future shutdowns from occurring or blunt their impact on the public. But ultimately just one shutdown-related bill – “The Freedom to Hunt and Fish Act” – became law. It allows for the continued sale of hunting and fishing licenses during a government shutdown.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think a lot has changed,” said Sen. Al DeKruif, R-Madison Lake, who is stepping down after one term in the Legislature. He believes the shutdown was an orchestrated political move by Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL legislative leaders to pave the way for their bid to win back majorities in the House and Senate in 2012. “The shutdown happened because it was a planned event,” he said.

In response DeKruif put forward proposals that would have allowed the Minnesota Zoo, state parks, the Minnesota Gambling Control Board and other entities to continue functioning even if a new budget hasn’t been enacted by the close of a two-year budget cycle. “My feeling was, why would you shut off a money supply and nearly destroy an industry because the Legislature and the governor couldn’t come to terms?” DeKruif said. None of DeKruif’s bills ultimately made it to the governor’s desk.

Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, sponsored a couple of the companion bills in the House. But he says the prospect of vetoes by Dayton made it difficult to garner support. “It didn’t appear in conversations with the governor that he was supportive of them,” Woodard said. “So it was difficult to get them passed last year.”

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, blames the protracted standoff – and the eventual resolution, which left neither side happy – on GOP pledges to not raise taxes under any circumstances. “As long as that continue to be the same, and as far as I know it is, we’re doomed again to gridlock because the pledge takes priority over listening to information and formulating a decision,” Sheran said.

Sheran’s own bill for avoiding future shutdowns proposed three changes to existing law. It would require that at least one member of the minority caucus be appointed to conference committees tasked with negotiating appropriation bills. In addition, legislators would stop receiving paychecks if the fiscal year ends without a new budget in place. Finally, Sheran’s legislation pitched the appointment of a mediator to help resolve differences if the governor vetoed a major appropriations bill. Her bill never made it out of committee.

Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, put forth a like-minded proposal aimed at thwarting future government shutdowns. It likewise proposed cutting off legislator salaries and per-diem payments in the event of a budget standoff that continues beyond the end of the biennium. It also would have continued spending appropriations during a shutdown, at the previous fiscal year’s levels. Finally, it granted the governor the authority to halt appropriations, but only if he agreed to call a special session within 30 days.

Nienow says he repeatedly received assurances from Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem that the bill would get a hearing, but it ultimately never came up on the floor. “I kind of feel like I got played,” Nienow said. “I don’t know why that is, exactly.”

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, offered a similar proposal for continued appropriations in the House. But his bill added a requirement that if a funding shortfall occurs, half of it would be solved through reductions in spending, the other half by raising income taxes. Winkler’s bill never received a hearing.

If Republicans maintain control of the House and Senate, it sets up another potential showdown between Dayton – who still wants to raise income tax rates on the state’s wealthiest residents – and a tax-averse Legislature. The February forecast showed a deficit of $1.1 billion for the next biennium. That’s a fraction of the $5 billion budget shortfall faced in 2011, but still substantial. If that financial picture doesn’t improve significantly, there would likely be another stalemate over the budget.

“In my observation, Republicans would certainly shut down government to try and stop a tax increase,” Winkler aid. “I don’t think anything has changed in that regard.”

Sen. DeKruif points out that Dayton will have to be more cautious about how budget brinksmanship plays politically in 2013. “It could happen,” he says of another government shutdown. “The only reason it might not is Gov. Dayton would be up for election the next cycle. The last cycle he felt he had nothing to lose.”

Democrats are trying to blame the shutdown on GOP majorities and turn it into a campaign liability this year. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen held a press conference on Monday to mark the one-year anniversary of the budget standoff, and he hammered that theme.

But Republicans insist that they’re not hearing much about the government shutdown on the campaign trail. “It doesn’t resonate,” said Nienow, noting that people are more worried about the economy and the federal health care law. “It’s not a major issue for people. It’s just not something that they’re worried about.”

Apitz, who’s worked with Republicans and Democrats through the years, reaches a similar conclusion. “Did it produce a lot of political wind for either side? I don’t think so,” Apitz said. “It’s such a distant memory for people.”

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