ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota lawmakers, stung by the embarrassment of last summer's state government shutdown, are pushing numerous bills that would make future debacles of a similar nature less noticeable to the public.
A Senate committee approved four bills Tuesday to take the sting out of future shutdowns. Between those and several others moving through the Senate and House, numerous state functions shuttered last summer — from state parks to lottery ticket sales to highway rest stops — would be spared in future shutdowns.
"We're really hoping that this never happens again," Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, said of the kind of bitter budget feud between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders that ultimately caused the shutdown. "But it almost happened in 2001. We had a partial shutdown in 2005, and of course we know what happened in 2011. I think it's good to have this discussion in case it does happen again in the future."
The debate in the Senate Finance Committee tore open wounds from last year's partisan meltdown, which drew national attention and gave a black eye to a state that has long taken pride in responsible government and civic participation. Several Democratic lawmakers suggested draining the pain of future shutdowns would make drawn-out budget standoffs even more common as long as both Democrats and Republicans hold power at the Capitol.
"These bills are a reflection that the Legislature didn't do its job," said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer. "It seems ridiculous to put the whole state on auto-pilot."
There are more than half-a-dozen shutdown-softening measures under consideration in the House and Senate. They include bills to: continue road construction projects and electrical inspections; leave state parks and campsites open, along with highway rest stops and the Minnesota Zoo; keep up sales of Minnesota Lottery tickets; assure continued funding for Minnesota state colleges and universities; and maintain the issuance of hunting and fishing licenses.
"This is about running a good state," said Sen. Al DeKruif, R-Madison Lake, lead Senate sponsor of several of the bills. "It just didn't feel right last summer, it didn't feel like Minnesota."
Despite the embarrassment of the state's political dysfunction on display for all to see, the 20-day shutdown did not end up costing Minnesota much money. While the state lost about $60 million in revenue during that time, it saved about $65 million in salaries not paid to about 19,000 state workers who were temporarily laid off. Dayton and others have been quick to point out it was those employees who suffered the most from the shutdown.
Bob Hume, a spokesman for Dayton, said the governor has been sizing up various pieces of shutdown-related legislation but has not yet decided which bills, if any, should be passed in response. Jim Schowalter, Dayton's commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget, suggested at the Senate hearing that lawmakers should consider a global approach to preventing or pacifying the pain of future shutdowns.
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said taking a piecemeal approach of multiple shutdown-related balms would result in playing favorites.
"Is it fair that we're going to keep operations going at the zoo, so people can keep visiting it, if we're not taking care of our safety net?" Bonoff said. "I'm certainly not against the zoo. But what's the message if we're taking care of that and not some of our most vulnerable populations?"