You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Lessons From Minnesota’s Government Shutdown About the Dismal, Irrational State of U.S. Politics

It is not the kind of statistic commemorated on a brass plaque at baseball’s Cooperstown or certified by the exacting taskmasters from Guinness. But Minnesota appears to have set a modern-day record for deadlocked state government, with its eleven-day shutdown of all but essential services. In fact, with budget negotiations stalled in St. Paul, Minnesota will soon surpass the epic 15-day federal stand-off between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in 1995 and 1996. When the history of the twenty-first-century breakdown in faith in government is written, Minnesota will deserve its own chapter.

In theory, nothing could be more politically self-destructive than for elected public officials to stubbornly allow Minnesota’s 66 state parks—not to mention the capitol building—to remain padlocked through two successive summer weekends. Especially since the dispute between Democratic Governor Mark Dayton and the Republican legislature has been whittled down to a difference of about $1.4 billion, or just $264 for each of Minnesota’s 5.3 million residents. But the irrational has, alas, become commonplace in America in 2011. As Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier put it, “What we’re seeing in Minnesota is the AAA baseball version of the debt-ceiling negotiations in Washington.”

The breakdown seems an almost inevitable consequence of the 2010 elections, which made Dayton the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades but saddled him with a legislature in which Republicans hold comfortable majorities in both chambers. Throw in a $5 billion projected deficit bequeathed by Dayton’s two-term predecessor, Tim Pawlenty, and you have a formula for political disaster. For all of Minnesota’s smile-button reputation, the state’s politics are probably even more polarized that those on Capitol Hill. “Eight years ago we had just one Michele Bachmann in the Minnesota senate,” said veteran liberal Democratic state senator John Marty. “Now, we have maybe twenty or forty of them in the legislature.”

MINNESOTA ENDURED A nine-day partial government shutdown in 2005 during Pawlenty’s first term as governor. But, because some appropriations bills had been approved before the June 30 end of Minnesota’s fiscal year, both the state government and its parks remained in operation. This time around, Minnesota is caught in what would be a comic Catch-22 if it were not so sad: The state ultimately will have to pay unemployment benefits to the 22,000 governmental employees it has laid off because it could not afford them. “I don’t think either side wanted to get to a shutdown,” said Tom Hanson, who was Pawlenty’s finance director during the 2005 budget skirmish. “But they haven’t found common ground.”

Indeed, common ground has been hard to locate, despite Minnesota’s reputation as a bastion of twentieth-century Hubert Humphrey liberalism and a pre-Pawlenty history of moderate Republican governors like Arne Carlson. Two decades ago, political scientist Daniel Elazar wrote, “Minnesota is the archetypical example of a state informed and permeated by the moralistic political subculture—more so than any other in the Union or perhaps in the world.” What this moralism means in practice is that political differences quickly become elevated into ideological struggles in which neither side is willing to retreat from outcroppings of bedrock principle. That helps explain why hot-button conservative issues like public-school vouchers, stem-cell research, and abortion are tangled up in Minnesota’s current budget fight.  

In addition to irrational politics and the state’s tradition of moralism, Pawlenty shares in the blame for Minnesota’s budgetary woes. And the GOP presidential candidate knows his financial stewardship is on the line: Late in the evening of June 30—just minutes before the Minnesota government officially shut down because of a budgetary impasse—Pawlenty held a hastily scheduled press conference at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport to try to shield himself from political attack over the shut-down. “Both in Washington, D.C., and in St. Paul, the Democrats continue their thirst for more spending and more taxes,” Pawlenty said in a boilerplate critique of his successor. “That’s not the right direction for Minnesota, and it’s not the right direction for our country.”

What the rhetorical onslaught was designed to hide was that, in truth, Pawlenty—like many governors in both parties juggling the books in the midst of the severe downturn—practiced budgetary legerdemain to avoid a statutorily forbidden deficit before he left office in January. Of course, it was hypocritical for Governor Pawlenty to eagerly bank $2.3 billion in federal stimulus money while Politician Pawlenty was denouncing Barack Obama for spending it. But, for all the partisan talking points over Pawlenty’s budgetary record, it strains credulity to believe that conservative GOP voters will blame him because Republicans in the Minnesota legislature held the line against a Democratic governor. In fact, Dayton may have caused more political mischief for Pawlenty with a recent unsuccessful proposal to help end the budgetary wars. Instead of his proposed 2 percent income-tax surcharge on millionaires, Dayton suggested that he could also accept a dollar-a-pack increase in the state cigarette tax. His purported inspiration: Pawlenty’s 2005 acceptance of a 75-cent-a-pack wholesale tax increase under the transparent guise of a Health Impact Fee. Undoubtedly relishing every moment, Dayton declared, “Governor Pawlenty even agreed to a cigarette tax increase. So there’s precedent for that.”

But, beyond the narrow implications for Pawlenty’s political fate, the broader national message from Minnesota is how easy it is for both parties to step off the cliff, heedless of the consequences. Already, there is talk that the government shutdown could last for months. Minnesota’s predicament underscores how difficult it is for politicians who willingly close down state parks over the Fourth of July to accept anything less than total victory. But this is what happens when political differences morph into moralistic struggles over unyielding principle. And, from the state that once gave the nation political figures like Hubert Humphrey,  it is a chilling precedent for Washington, as the debt clock ticks towards its August 2 rendezvous with destiny.

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter @waltershapiroPD.