A Tale of Two Shutdowns

Minnesota’s government shutdown has made national news, in part because it foreshadows, in some respects, the battle that will play out in Washington over the next month on the debt ceiling. What has happened in Minnesota is clearcut: our Republican legislature passed a budget for the next two years, consisting of nine spending bills. Our Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, didn’t think the legislature spent enough money, so he vetoed them. As a result of Dayton’s vetoes, state agencies ran out of funding as of July 1 and, with the exception of certain critical functions, the state’s government shut down.

Dayton’s claim that the legislature didn’t want to spend enough money will resonate only on the far left, given that the nine bills appropriated more money than Minnesota has ever spent in any two year period. But put that fact to one side: it is simply indisputable that the legislature appropriated funds for parks, roads, schools, drivers’ license bureaus, etc. If those agencies have shut down, it is solely because of Governor Dayton’s vetoes. In this context, for the Democrats to claim that Republicans somehow shut down the state’s government is ludicrous.

This is not the first time Minnesota has experienced a government shutdown. In 2005, during Tim Pawlenty’s first term as governor, there was a partial shutdown that lasted for nine days. It is instructive to compare the events that led to the shutdowns of 2005 and 2011.

In 2005, Democrats controlled the Minnesota Senate while Republicans controlled the House. The governor was, of course, a Republican. The shutdown did not result from a veto by Governor Pawlenty. On the contrary, as of the end of the regular legislative session that spring, no budget had passed the legislature. Governor Pawlenty therefore called a special session that ran through June. During that session, Senate Democratic leaders negotiated with their counterparts from the Republican House and Governor Pawlenty. By the end of June, the parties reportedly were close to an agreement.

Then, to the surprise of nearly everyone, Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson pulled the plug on the negotiations:

The surprise decision by Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson to adjourn the Senate a few hours before midnight, when a deal looked close, was roundly criticized the next day, even by some traditional Democratic allies.

It was the Senate Democrats’ walkout that led to the shutdown the next day. I wrote at the time that Johnson’s walkout confirmed reports that the Democrats were hoping to reap political advantage from a shutdown:

Political insiders here in Minnesota told me some time ago that the Democrats were maneuvering to try to achieve a shutdown of the state government. Their strategy was to refuse to agree on a budget, hold out until there was no alternative to a shutdown, and then blame Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty. …

That prediction became a reality last night, when Senate Democrats, who have a small majority in that chamber, walked off the job, which will cause a temporary layoff of some state government employees and cessation of some nonessential services. The Democrats’ walkout took everyone by surprise; Governor Pawlenty called the Democrats’ walkout “irresponsible and bizarre behavior, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. … The Democrats punched out before their shift ended.”

After nine more days of negotiations, the parties reached an agreement and new spending bills were enacted and signed by the governor. Pawlenty agreed to an increase in cigarette taxes in order to get the state’s government operating again. The Democrats, meanwhile, blamed Pawlenty for the shutdown:

[Senate Majority Leader Dean] Johnson also blames the governor for the protracted special session, and much to the governor’s dismay, has labeled Pawlenty “Governor Shutdown.”

The Democrats’ logic is, in a sense, consistent: if the government shuts down, no matter the circumstances, it is the Republicans’ fault. If Pawlenty was to blame for the 2005 shutdown, the immediate cause of which was the Senate Democrats’ walkout, how can Dayton not be to blame for the 2011 shutdown, the sole cause of which was his vetoes?

Governor Pawlenty writes about these events in his book, Courage to Stand:

I knew a shutdown would not be good for me. It wouldn’t be good for anyone. Public sentiment would surely swing down, and I would take a hit. But I thought the legislature would take a bigger hit; I believed the public would understand and support my position. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the way it happened. As far as the press and the public were concerned, w were all to blame for what was perceived as a stalemate.

In the following year’s election, Pawlenty was narrowly re-elected, while Dean Johnson lost his Senate seat. Two thousand six was, of course, a terrible year for Republicans, and the Democrats recaptured the Minnesota House (only to lose it again, along with the Senate, in 2010.) Pawlenty took a lot of abuse from some on the right because he agreed to the cigarette tax in order to end the 2005 budget impasse. The Taxpayers’ League of Minnesota, in particular, hounded him for that decision, which to this day is the main reason why some call Pawlenty a moderate rather than a conservative. Such criticism is, in my view, entirely unfair. What the Democrats really wanted, and thought their shutdown scheme might yield, was a massive increase in the income tax. Pawlenty battled a hostile legislature throughout his eight years in office, and his record, taken as a whole, is extraordinarily good. Time after time, he blocked tax increases and kept spending in line–remarkably so, given the strength of his Democratic opposition.

This year, Minnesota’s Democrats undoubtedly are drawing on lessons they drew from the 2005 shutdown. My guess is that those lessons include the following: 1) they can get away, in many quarters, with blaming Republicans for a shutdown that they caused themselves; and 2) in a budget battle between the governor and the legislature, the governor’s powers are not to be underestimated.

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