Countdown to government shutdown: Who's to blame?

As of today, the Minnesota Legislature is two-and-a-half weeks tardy in solving the state's $5 billion budget deficit. Unfortunately for everyone, there doesn't appear to be a budget deal in sight.

If no agreement is made by July 1st, the Minnesota government will temporarily shut down for the second time in six years.

"I'm a little bit more worried in terms of direct impact," says Dr. Stephen Frank, political science professor at St. Cloud state. Frank says he's already put a hold on a remodeling project he'd been planning for his master bathroom this summer, fearing he might be out of the job for a while come July.

As a MnSCU professor, he probably won't fall under the umbrella of "critical employees" that will remain working during a shutdown.

At this point, the odds of the Republicans and Dayton finding middle ground by their deadline are slim to none, says David Schultz, political expert and professor at Hamline University School of Business.

"Dayton and the Republicans are no closer now than they were when the legislative session started," says Schultz. "At the most general level, it's about contrasting views on the value of government. Dayton and the Republicans have very, very different views."

As for what a statewide government shutdown would look like, no one can really say. But political analysts warn to brace for something much worse than the partial shutdown in 2005.

"I think it would be much more Draconian than last time," says Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor.

If there is no agreement, Dayton will likely push for a harsh shutdown in order to put more pressure on the Republicans, says Jacobs. Legislators will face re-election before Dayton, and have more to lose if things get ugly.

"I think he wants the full effect of the shutdown to be felt," says Jacobs. "Now, I think he'll look for a way to prevent loss of life, but I think it's going to be pretty severe."

But a government shutdown doesn't just happen. The actions -- or absence of actions -- of parties on both sides of the aisle brought this on. Here are some of the individuals and groups experts say contributed to this high-stakes staring contest:

Past Leadership

A $5 billion budget deficit doesn't happen over night. One-time patches, tax cuts, and deferments that date back to the Jesse Ventura administration have only caused Minnesota's budget problems to snowball over the years.

"That started the game of dodging major policy disagreements through budget gimmickry, and that's the road we've been on ever since," says Jacobs. "We're at the end of the road. There is no more tobacco settlement money. The stimulus is gone."

Tim Pawlenty is particularly guilty. In his two terms, Pawlenty used just about every one-time patch out there to balance the budget. By 2009, 41 percent of the state budget was comprised by these one-time fixes, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. That put Minnesota second only to Sarah Palin's Alaska in reliance on temporary solutions.

"They just didn't make the hard choices," says Frank.

The DFL Caucus

Now in the minority, it's easy for Minnesota Democrats to blame the Republicans for the budget stalemate. But the DFL caucus didn't exactly do much to help the situation. They didn't even propose a budget this session. On the contrary, it seems like they were doing all they could to make sure the budget wasn't solved on time.

"The legislative Democrats are horrible -- horrible -- at political messaging and political maneuvering," says Schultz. "In fact, they relied completely on Dayton. They really didn't do anything in terms of getting their message out and getting their argument out."

There's no better example of the Democrats' public procrastination than the King Tut rant from Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. On May 18, less than a week before the session deadline, Pappas took it upon herself to waste everyone's time by reading King Tut's biography aloud on the Senate floor. She then began listing off the names of dinosaurs found at the Science Museum, successfully mispronouncing the scientific names for half of the organisms alive during the Jurassic period.


Republican Leadership

Deputy Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel, R-Edina, pretty much summed up the Republicans' position last month after Dayton offered to meet them "halfway" on a budget solution: "Half of a bad idea is still a bad idea."

Extreme rhetoric like this has made a budget deal nearly impossible, says Schultz. It's also put the Republicans in an impossible situation moving forward: If they cave now, they'll look weak to voters; if they don't, they'll take heat for the shutdown.

"They're caught between a political rock and a hard place," says Schultz.

Sen. Warren Limmer and Rep. Steve Gottwalt

With only a few days remaining in the session, one would presume that balancing the state's budget would be foremost on the minds of legislators. But it wasn't.

Instead, droves of protesters filled the Capitol to watch legislators square off on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage -- an epic distraction from the budget, authored by Sen. Warren Limmer and Rep. Steve Gottwalt.

Instead of job creation and a balanced budget, gay marriage and Bradlee Dean became the central focus of the 2011 legislative session, says Schultz.

"That was an indication of how the Republicans lost control of the message," he says.

The Newbies

Nationwide, the 2010 elections were hit hard by the Tea Party wave, and Minnesota was no different. Now we're stuck with a crop of right-wing legislators with extreme views on government, says Schultz.

"These are individuals who basically don't understand what government does," he says.

Many of the Republican freshman legislators in Minnesota would actually welcome a government shutdown as an alternative to compromise, says Frank.

"I've sat at meeting with some of them who just don't mind if the government shuts down -- seriously," says Frank. "They just don't like government."

Some of these stubborn freshman legislators helped form the "Not a Penny More" caucus, an alliance built on the notion that they won't spend a cent more than the $34 billion budget laid out by the Republicans. In other words, the core belief is the refusal to contribute an iota of compromise.

Mark Dayton

Only Minnesota would elect a Legislature full of Republicans who pledged to not raise taxes and a DFL governor who campaigned on the slogan, "Tax The Rich." Though Dayton has since reigned in the rhetoric, the fundamental ideological divide between him and the Republicans is why we're in this predicament, says Jacobs.

"He's the other part of it," says Jacobs. "If Tom Emmer were governor, we wouldn't have a shutdown. We would have a $34 billion budget."

Tony Sutton and Michael Brodkorb

The take-no-prisoners rhetoric perpetuated by GOP Party Chairman Tony Sutton and Deputy Party Chair Michael Brodkorb -- and repeated by Republican leadership -- has all but eliminated the possibility of a compromise at this stage in the game, says Schultz. "They have basically drawn a line in the sand with their rhetoric that makes it impossible."

Brodkorb in particular is in a unique position of power. Not only does he hold a leadership position with the party, he's also a communications staffer for the Senate Republican Caucus, and he's extremely influential in both positions, says Jacobs.

"The combination of both Brodkorb and Sutton as both party leaders and pressure points on the legislators is quite striking," says Jacobs. "Sometimes you wonder who's running things in the Legislature."

Now, who did we forget?

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