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Why a budget tie is a win for Minnesota Democrats

In warfare, a tie in battle eventually becomes a win for the team that can maintain superior resources. That’s the case regarding the compromise deal between Minnesota Democrats and Republicans over the state budget.

MN Capitol
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
In the recent budget deal, it’s fair to say that on policy grounds it was pretty much of a tie.
In warfare, a tie in battle eventually becomes a win for the team that can maintain superior resources. That’s the case regarding the compromise deal between Minnesota Democrats and Republicans over the state budget. Democrats have the resource edge and over time will be the winners.

An example from America’s Civil War resembles the current Minnesota situation. In 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Union forces fought Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederates to a bloody tie in Virginia’s Wilderness region. But the tie was a strategic victory for Grant and the Union. Why? Because it deprived the beleaguered Confederates of more of the resources they needed to fight another day.

In the recent budget deal, it’s fair to say that on policy grounds it was pretty much of a tie. Democrats got increased spending, particularly in education, favored by their teachers union. Republicans got cuts in the income tax and health care provider tax. Overall spending increased at a level between the preferences of the two parties.

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Neither side received much in the way of other cherished policy priorities. Republicans failed to gain additional abortion restrictions, tax breaks for private school scholarships or preemption of the $15 minimum wage laws in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Democrats failed to end gay conversion therapy, create a state equal rights law or secure drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Yet strategically the deal was a Democratic victory because of their superior resources in state politics. The party is simply much better equipped to fight electoral, policy and budget battles another day. Their resource advantages are several.

photo of article author
Steven Schier
First, Democrats have total control of all statewide executive offices. This gives them a great advantage in administering programs and contesting court cases about the law and budget. Political sociologist Ben Merriman in “Conservative Innovators,” his recent book on policy battles in state governments, notes an important but often overlooked fact: “materially, many modern state executives tower over their legislatures.” State executives have grown in size and powers in recent decades, while many state legislatures, including Minnesota’s, are constitutionally relegated to time-limited duties.

Merriam explains that, “In many states, the legislature is simply not a regular presence in the operation of government and, when in session, legislatures are highly dependent on the policy expertise of the state executive.” Control of the executive branch is a big resource advantage for Minnesota Democrats.

A strong majority in the state House, resulting from big electoral gains in the Twin Cities suburbs, is another Democratic resource edge. The majority’s future depends on another large Democratic asset, the party’s formidable electoral machine. That includes an impressive get-out-the-vote operation, abundant funding sources, and the many efforts of friendly groups such as Education Minnesota, AFSCME and the Alliance for a Better Minnesota.

Republicans, like Lee’s army, are simply outgunned in terms of such assets. The party is absent from state executive offices and its electoral machinery is a pale shadow of that of the Democrats. They lack well known and well liked candidates for statewide office.

The Republicans do have a few resources of note, particularly their 35-32 majority in the state Senate. Their House and Senate party caucuses often have competitive levels of funding for state legislative races.

Both parties bring weaknesses to the 2020 election. New suburban Democratic House members who voted for hikes in the gas tax and license tabs have to explain those unpopular votes to their constituents. GOP senators in the suburbs have to find ways to counter the 2018 Democratic trend in their districts.

Surprises could temporarily upset this Democratic strategic advantage. Perhaps Trump will prove electorally competitive again in Minnesota. Maybe the public will revolt against the more controversial aspects of the Democrats’ progressive agenda for the state.

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But those outcomes seem improbable. Gov. Tim Walz now presents a stable, friendly and flexible image for the party and that fits squarely in the venerated tradition of “Minnesota nice.” Trump’s job approval in the state is unimpressive. Democrats retain an array of assets the GOP can’t match.

So the grounds for GOP optimism are few, like the situation faced by Lee in 1864. Unlike Lee, the GOP does not face any final surrender. But it must continue an uphill fight against a foe with superior resources. A budget tie does not improve its strategic situation.

Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield.

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