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Another shutdown? This year’s staring contest differs from 2011

Nearly all of the central players in the 2011 state government shutdown are gone now, for reasons personal, professional, or, in one case, a bit of both. Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers ran for governor last year,  while the finance leaders in both chambers have retired, as did then-Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch.

The only one left is Gov. Mark Dayton. Now, the governor finds himself in a similar situation, butting heads with an intransigent Republican majority, drawing lines in the sand as the state creeps toward a shutdown.

Even some of the lingo in use is the same. In the run-up to the end of session, Dayton imposed what he called a “cone of silence” to stop the leaking of negotiating details, and said he hoped the media freeze-out would hold in place as talks continued prior to the special session.

“Unfortunately, I think we coined that,” Koch said, laughing. “I was under the understanding that phrase had been banned.”

That acknowledgment aside, Koch thinks keeping secrets isn’t a bad idea in practice, saying it prevents the risk of “misstating, or over-announcing” some element of a deal that’s still coming together. So far, so good: Dayton, House Republican leadership and Senate DFLers have stayed mum through the first few days of meetings, announcing only their intentions to hold further meetings.

Despite the surface similarities, a number of new factors make 2015’s staring contest different, and perhaps simpler, than the 2011 episode. Most obviously, and probably most importantly, the state is in surplus, rather than deficit, and the governor has a Senate DFL majority as a negotiating ally.

Also different, some argue, is the political picture of the moment. Republicans say Dayton deliberately took the state to a shutdown in 2011 in order to hang the failure on Republican legislators. Doing the same this year would implicate Senate Democrats, who will also be on the ballot next year, and could be doubly harmed for failing to land a budget with their own party’s governor.

“It didn’t matter what kind of tax bill I got to the governor [in 2011], he was going to shut the state down,” said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston. “He did negotiate in bad faith in 2011, I don’t think we’re headed down that track this time.”

As evidence of Dayton’s plot, Republicans point to the fact that the governor rejected a deal in June 2011, only to accept a virtually identical offer a few weeks later. Davids takes the result as a sign of political calculation.

Former House member Mary Liz Holberg, who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, attributes the shutdown not to campaigning, but inexperience on the part of the administration. Holberg recalled the governor’s seeming confusion over the in-take rates and processes at state prisons versus county jails, and has vivid memory of a deal to avert the shutdown that Dayton had drawn up himself.

“I won’t get into details of the offer … but what he presented  was pretty radical,” Holberg said. “He just brought this out on table, and it was pretty out there. I think sometimes, maybe he surprises his own staff.”

University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs observed that in the shutdown year, the two sides essentially made their final pitches and walked away from the table, unmoving, a significant divergence from this year’s narrative.

“Even in the final hours of session, you had the governor’s top staff meeting with leaders in the Republican House, talking about still more compromise,” Jacobs said. “That gives me some hope this is not going to move from special session to shutdown.”

What seems similar, though, to Jacobs, is Dayton’s recognition of his chance to draw a distinction between his priorities and those of Republicans. In 2011, Dayton used the shutdown to argue Republicans refused to raise taxes even 1 cent on the state’s wealthy; this year, the governor is saying Republicans held a corporate property tax cut above new money for early childhood education.

“You can hear it in what the governor has been saying all along, that if voters knew what the Republicans were doing, they would punish them in 2016,” Jacobs said. “He views a special session as an opportunity for voter education.”

Bernie Hesse, a lobbyist for the UFCW Local 1189 union, said Dayton’s agreement to end the shutdown in mid-July showed the governor’s empathy for 22,000 state workers, who had been forced into furloughs with limited pay. This time around, Hesse said, affected workers would be prepared to file for injunctive relief in the event of a shutdown, though he doubts things will come to that. Fair or unfair, both conservatives and liberals think the 2011 episode hurt Republicans more than Dayton.

“[Republicans] have too many smart guys in there this time,” said Hesse, who singled-out Ben Golnik, a campaign operative and strategist who is now executive director of the House GOP caucus. “The guys who get the whole election thing, they won’t do that. They’ll blink.”

In his first term as governor, Dayton’s message covered nearly the whole of the budget: He signed only the agriculture omnibus, a minor spending piece, and thereafter pledged that he would not “agree to anything until [he] agrees to everything.” This year, Dayton has effectively cleared the decks, signing contentious health and human services and state government budgets, among others, and vetoing just three for further revisions.

But dealmakers should mind the details, warned Koch, who was not surprised to learn that Dayton had identified a slew of seemingly obscure shortcomings as he vetoed the economic development and agricultural bills.

“There were big philosophical things he wanted [in 2011], and then there were two or three issues that were extraordinarily important … but very small,” Koch recalled. “You wouldn’t think it, but these small things can be absolute requirements for him.”

The more complex problem Dayton faces could be mending fences within his own party, according to Holberg, who noted the way House Democrats and liberal senators had aligned with the governor, while outstate DFLers often sided with Republicans. That work will be even trickier, Holberg said, as lawmakers and interest groups clamor to get their unmet needs addressed in the final deal.

“It seems like new issues are still coming up, and people are saying, ‘You have to address that, you’ve gotta fix this,’” Holberg said. “It’s going to be pretty challenging — not to say it’s impossible.”

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