Editorial: Dysfunction is on display in shutdown

  • Updated: July 1, 2011 - 10:00 PM

Lift 'cone of silence' to show what's at stake.

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Photo: Andrew Lilja Of Maplewood, Special to the Star Tribune

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Angry? Frustrated? You deserve to be.

The partial shutdown that began at midnight Friday is a betrayal of the trust voters vested in the winners of the 2010 elections. It's an inconvenience for many of this state's citizens, a hardship for some, and a major and unfair sacrifice for an unfortunate few.

It's also reason for Minnesotans to worry about their state's capacity to govern itself when their political parties share power, as has been the case for the past 21 years. The partisan polarization and fiscal distress of the last decade have escalated to full-blown dysfunction.

No easy way back to good order is in view. No obvious pressure point lies soon ahead on the calendar to compel compromise by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders.

It will be up to engaged and agitated citizens to keep the pressure on their lawmakers to set a 2012-13 budget, and keep this shutdown short.

Revelations Friday about the proposals in play during down-to-the-wire negotiations at the Capitol on Wednesday and Thursday indicate that the current crop of state leaders has not learned from the mistakes of their predecessors.

Their proposals in the 2010-11 biennium's waning hours involved temporary patches that would have pushed today's problems into future years, rather than solving them for good. Republicans offered to add $1 billion to the $34 billion budget they passed and Dayton vetoed in May.

But about $800 million of that $1 billion came in the form of another big delay in school aid payments and borrowing against future state tobacco lawsuit settlement revenues. Those funding gimmicks just boot the state's money woes down the road.

The GOP offer came at a price Dayton rightly rejected.

Republicans wanted a promise of his signature on bills limiting abortion, banning cloning research at the University of Minnesota, requiring photo IDs for voting, redrawing district lines as Republicans dictate, and more items straight out of the GOP national playbook.

Those nonspending matters don't belong on the budget negotiating table. They deserve to rise or fall on their own merits. Attaching them to budget decisions runs counter to the spirit if not the letter of the state Constitution's requirement that bills be devoted to a single purpose. Those things can wait until the 2012 legislative session.

Setting policy disputes aside would be a good starting point for budget talks when they resume -- and that ought to be ASAP. So would a resolve to avoid one-time fixes to deal with what is clearly a structural shortage of state revenues, not runaway state spending (see box above).

It's regrettable that in a last-ditch move, Dayton joined legislators in a willingness to send the state's schools another large two-year IOU. When he finally moved away from a high-end income tax increase as a source of more 2012-13 revenue, as he should have, it should not have been to this.

The same ploy was used in 2009-10, with consequences that ought to warn off its repetition. The state reneged this year on its IOU promise to schools, turning the "shift" into a de facto retroactive cut and allowing politicians to duck immediate responsibility.

Minnesota can do better, and Dayton must lead the way. His agreement to enter a "cone of silence" with legislators for nearly a week deprived Minnesotans of an opportunity to hear his reasons for believing that the GOP-backed $34 billion budget is too small for the next two years.

They did not get to see him enlarge the spending cuts he would accept to more than $2 billion -- putting the lie to any claim that he was unwilling to compromise. They did not realize that Republicans had poured abortion and the rest of their issue grab bag onto the negotiating table.

Dayton should step up his efforts to help Minnesotans understand the stakes in this budget fight. Too often, it's been portrayed as a tussle over taxes.

It's really about whether and how Minnesota will do the work it assigns to state government. The quality and availability of higher education, transit, health care for the poor and disabled, and local public safety services are on the line.

The barricades at rest area exit ramps, historic sites and state park entrances this weekend are jarring emblems of the cost of dysfunction in state government. And these visible consequences of the state's shutdown may not be the most damaging ones.

With each day that government does not fully function, Minnesotans' trust and respect erode for their government and the people who serve in it. Knowing that ought be more than enough to propel lawmakers back to St. Paul next week to finish their jobs.

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To offer an opinion considered for publication as a letter to the editor, please fill out this form. Follow us on Twitter @StribOpinion and Facebook at facebook.com/StribOpinion.

  • THE REVENUE PROBLEM

    A GOP mantra is that state government "has a spending problem, not a revenue problem." But when adjusted for inflation, Minnesota's per-capita general fund revenues were lower in 2010-11 than at any point in the past decade. That's true despite the state taking over local funding burdens for school, transit and court costs during the same years.

    Office of Gov. Mark Dayton. See www.startribune.com/a528.

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