The Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton soon may head to court in what represents a new low in the increasingly no-holds-barred brawling between two parties that seem incapable of finding common ground or even a civil way to deal with one another.
The GOP’s last-minute insertion of a clause that would defund the state revenue department — which collects and processes the funds for all of state government — unless an outsized tax bill was signed by the DFL governor was a reprehensible, cynical tactic. House Speaker Kurt Daudt defends it as an “insurance policy,” a “genius move” to guarantee a tax bill. He was quick to assure an editorial writer that “I didn’t ever want the Department of Revenue not to be funded.” In other words, Daudt was relying on the governor to accede rather than risk something so injurious to the state. That’s not a negotiating strategy — it’s bullying.
Dayton bears blame as well. His threat to defund much of the legislative branch unless lawmakers agree to reopen big portions of contested bills is a back door to the renegotiations he wanted without the specter of a government shutdown. He argues that he is defending the state’s hard-won fiscal stability, but there is an established process for that. His move — like Daudt’s — goes beyond those parameters. The state cannot afford for either of these tactics to become templates for future legislatures or governors to follow.
A democratically elected government must operate within the confines of legal rules. It is designed to be the civilized alternative to just letting warring tribes go at each other with swords and battle axes for the right to dole out the spoils. Tactics that threaten the very basis of government further erode public confidence in the ability of institutions to work through differences while maintaining the rule of law.
There was much compromise in the budget bills that took months to achieve. Neither side was wholly satisfied and, when competing parties are in control, that is to be expected. Minnesotans expect both sides to fight — and fight hard — for their objectives. But they also expect a reasonable amount of civility and compromise and a commitment to the good of the state that transcends party lines. The ends-justify-the-means attitude that emerged at the end of this session is poisonous to both sides and the state as a whole.
If the Republicans go to court, as they have intimated, they should do so without delay and the court should also act expeditiously. It’s unfortunate that the two branches must turn to the third for adjudication of their disputes and for guidance on how to proceed, but clearly some legal guardrails need to be erected against these unprecedented threats. Each side is convinced of their own argument. Dayton maintains that his ability to veto appropriations is unqualified and includes the operating funds for the legislative branch. Daudt insists that the Legislature has the ability to fund — or not fund — government as it sees fit. Both parties should recognize that their authority comes with limits. It now may be up to a court to make those limits clear.
The people of Minnesota elected a DFL governor while handing control of the Legislature to Republicans. The competing ideologies and agendas of both must be recognized and represented as legitimate desires of this state’s citizens. The only way that works in a productive fashion is through an unshakable commitment to honest compromise, without skulduggery. That is the very foundation of our political system and represents the fair play values that built this state.