The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State budget: a closer look

July 10, 2011

As area legislators see it, the shutdown is rooted in election results

Now officially the longest state government shutdown in Minnesota history, it was already the most far-reaching — surpassing the eight-day partial interruption of state services in 2005.

It’s also extremely rare. Only twice in the 153-year history of Minnesota have the Legislature and governor failed to pass a new state budget before the previous one expired.

The reasons for the failure are varied, according to area lawmakers. Rookies in all the key leadership posts, a massive gulf between Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican lawmakers about the proper role of government, an equally massive chasm on the state’s balance sheet, and a society as divided as its elected leaders.

For many members of the public, the impasse at the Capitol is hard to fathom. Ask them for an assessment of the performance of state officials, the answer is consistent.

“You don’t want to know,” said Scott Schumacher, a Janesville resident who rushed to buy a fishing license before the shutdown started. “It’s so stupid, really, that they can’t compromise on something.”

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, has heard the sentiment more than once.

“They don’t understand why we can’t get there,” Sheran said of a compromise. “And they hate the consequences of it in their own lives. At the same time, they may not see the election that everybody participated in is part of this whole conflict.”

Republican candidates for the House and Senate in 2010 — facing a multi-billion-dollar state budget shortfall — ran with a unified message to voters: Raising taxes would harm the economy. The state must limit its spending to the revenue that current tax rates will generate.

Republican candidates won in a landslide, taking control of the House and the Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Meanwhile, voters replaced no-new-taxes Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had shifted his focus to the White House, with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and his unwavering call for a huge tax increase on the state’s wealthiest residents. Dayton’s message: Fixing the shortfall without new tax revenue would result in devastating cuts to colleges, property tax relief programs, health care assistance and community-based support for the elderly and disabled.

“There are people who believe it’s like legislators fighting over a toy or over power,” Sheran said of the impasse that followed the election. “To reduce it to some sort of childish debate misses the serious disagreement that’s going on over the proper role of government.”

Republican lawmakers said they see the current political battles — both in Washington, D.C., and in St. Paul — as momentous. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said state spending has been growing at an unsustainable rate and the emergence of the tea party movement gives Republicans a unique opportunity to impose a meaningful transformation of government.

“We’re getting so frustrated, the fiscal conservatives and the tea party,” Cornish said. “We know since 1961 we’ve just seen dramatic increases in the budget. Finally, the showdown has come — the time to put that foot down.”

Cornish, the Lake Crystal police chief, said he’s prepared to surrender his job in the House if the majority of voters on Nov. 6, 2012 conclude that the Republican budget was too harsh or that Republican lawmakers didn’t compromise enough to avoid a shutdown.

“That’s why I’ve got two jobs,” Cornish said. “If people disagree with me and throw me out in one, I’ve got the other one.”

Rep. Bob Gunther, a Fairmont Republican and the longest-serving lawmaker from south-central Minnesota, said he’s also willing to take the political blow if Minnesotans prefer Dayton’s approach.

“The statement ‘We’re going to live within our means’ is what got us there in record numbers. And now they think we’re just going to go and raise taxes?” Gunther said. “It’s not going to happen. ... I’d rather lose by keeping my promise.”

But lawmakers have a duty that goes beyond taking a stand, said Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato. Despite repeated assertions by Republican that they did their job by passing a balanced budget, the state constitution requires lawmakers to either reach agreement on a budget with the governor or garner the two-thirds legislative support required to override a gubernatorial veto, Brynaert said.

“The fact of the matter is, governance is about getting a bill that can signed by the governor — or you have the votes to override,” she said. “Otherwise, you don’t have a balanced budget.”

Which means lawmakers need to be willing and able to negotiate a settlement, she said. And negotiation requires finding a middle ground where both sides feel they’ve succeeded in part in preserving their ideals and their priorities.

“It’s very important that the result not deny the validity of either side,” Brynaert said. “I know that’s the wisdom of Solomon, but that’s really what you do in negotiations.”

Negotiating is a learned skill, said Brynaert, who was heavily involved in contract negotiations as a member of the Mankato Public School Board.

Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch bring new perspectives and experiences to their positions, but none bring any experience in the give-and-take of state budget parleys.

“I think it is significant that the main players are not experienced in state government negotiation,” Brynaert said. “I don’t know if that’s happened before. It’s the curse and the blessing of new blood.”

The gulf between the two sides is so formidable that Sheran wonders if the objective now should be to cobble together a budget that ends the shutdown and gets the state to Nov. 6, 2012 — at which point the voters would hopefully give both sides a less muddled picture of what they want.

“I really believe the public here has a conflict of goals and ideals,” Sheran said. “We may have to have some short-term solutions in this budget and see in the next election if people are moving more clearly in one direction or another.”

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State budget: a closer look