The 2011 state government shutdown is a fading memory for many Minnesotans.
But it's still a sore spot for some -- for example, vacationers whose state parks reservations were canceled, racetrack operators whose season was shortened, highway contractors whose projects were disrupted, and 22,000 state employees locked out of their jobs for 20 anxious days.
Some of what galled those most-affected Minnesotans was that for most of their neighbors, life as usual continued. State government belongs to every Minnesotan. But the consequences of its dysfunction in the summer of 2011 were confined unfairly to an unlucky few.
It's understandable that they would ask to be spared in the future, should another impasse at the Capitol delay authorization of a new state budget in 2013 or beyond. Legislators tend to be sympathetic to their pleas.
Who wouldn't agree that the operation of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities ought not be interrupted by a budget fight? Or that electrical inspections on construction projects ought to continue? Or that the Minnesota Zoo ought to be open at the peak of the summer season?
But say yes to individual appeals -- there have been at least seven in bills introduced during the current legislative session -- and the unlucky few affected by any future shutdown would be fewer and unluckier than they were in 2011. Primarily, they will be state employees -- a unionized group that the two major political parties view in differing lights.
If a shutdown's pain is heaped on state employees alone, budget impasses will become more politically acceptable. Chances are good that they'll occur more frequently and last longer. And if they do, Minnesota's reputation for orderly government will erode, to long-term ill effect for every resident of the state.
That's why the Legislature should reconsider its approach to the batch of special-pleader shutdown bills that have begun to reach the House and Senate floors -- and why DFL Gov. Mark Dayton should be wary of them if they hit his desk one at a time.
More comprehensive consideration is in order of what ought to happen when a new budget is not enacted by July 1. A shutdown protocol should be constructed that avoids piling the pain on a small, politically vulnerable group of Minnesotans, while still protecting life and safety. Bills introduced by GOP Sen. John Howe and Rep. Steve Drazkowski offer a framework for consideration.
Better yet, the Legislature ought to consider amending its own budget-setting process to hasten the resolution of budget disputes, so that shutdowns can be prevented.
DFL Sen. Kathy Sheran of Mankato has advanced a bill with that intention. It has three parts: It would require that members of both parties serve on conference committees drafting the final version of budget bills, impose court-ordered mediation if the Legislature adjourns without achieving agreement with the governor on a new budget and suspend legislators' salaries in the event of a shutdown.
Resistance to each of those ideas runs deep in the Legislature's GOP majority. Yet the senior members in their ranks ought to remember when the partisan tables were turned at the Capitol, and GOP minority legislators were the ones frozen out of conference committees.
Minnesota needed a human bridge then between the DFL Legislature and the Republican governor. The 2005 shutdown might have been avoided if GOP legislators had been allowed to play that role, or if a mediator had been invited to their talks.
Minnesota hasn't seen the last of budget trouble or divided government. But this year, however briefly, the state is in the black, and tempers have cooled. That makes this a year of opportunity to set new rules, preferably ones that would spare not just some Minnesotans from shutdowns, but all of them.