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Minnesota’s government is like a dysfunctional family

House Speaker Kurt Zellers speaks to the press during the Legislature's final hours on Monday.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
House Speaker Kurt Zellers speaks to the press during the Legislature’s final hours on Monday.

I have come to the conclusion that our state government looks like a dysfunctional family. Worse, it looks like a dysfunctional family in debt. The repo man is knocking at the back door to take the furniture, the sheriff is at the front door with a foreclosure notice and the family car is being towed away. And, while that is happening, the family is sitting around the kitchen table arguing about religion.

Minnesota is $5.6 billion in the hole. The governor and Legislature were elected to deal with that elephant in the front room, but like any dysfunctional family, has failed to solve its main problem. It did have time to sit around the conference tables and come up with a gay marriage ban. Even with the grave possibility of a government shutdown looming, Republicans played to the gallery. That’s not governance, nor leadership. It is politics. As I define it, politics is simply the art of getting into office and staying there.

If you were a collector of moral compasses, you would find great pickings on the steps of the state Capitol where hundreds have been lost or abandoned.

If this were a family, one parent thinks we can cut the family’s way back to financial health, and the other says the family needs to tighten the belt, for sure, but adds that it might be wise to go out and find a way to bring a little more money into the household. But such a solution is against his or her religion. So, they end up back at the kitchen table and the more they argue, the bigger the elephant grows.

My fear is that somebody in the family is going to figure out a way to steal the money. It would be easy enough to do. There is a pile of it just sitting there. The people of Minnesota, despite its reputation as a high tax state, chose to tax themselves 3/8ths of 1 percent and passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. Money started pouring in to supplement money budgeted by the Legislature on environmental and arts programs.

A tempting pile of money
Both of the budgets of the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency have been gutted. Under the various bills of the House and Senate, millions of dollars have been cut from programs on which citizens rely. When those programs disappear, legislators will hear from constituents demanding the programs be restored. Legislators will be frightened by the only thing that scares legislators — the prospect of being thrown out of office. They will look around, and see that big pile of money from the Legacy Act just sitting there. They will be tempted to restore those budget cuts with all that extra money we voted to set aside.

But that would be stealing. I mean that literally. The Llegislature would be committing an unconstitutional offense if it dug deep holes in the budget and tried to backfill it with Legacy Fund money. The law is clear that the fund’s money can only be used to supplement appropriations. It cannot be used as a substitute. But when you are broke you sometimes turn to desperate measures. It is only a suggestion, but I’d hire a cop to keep a very close eye on the Legacy Fund.

So here we go again with another special session, which, by the way, doesn’t seem as special as they once were. In these tight times, we will pay, roughly calculated, $40,000 a day to legislators to come back and do what they were supposed to do in a regular session. You’ve heard it before, but what if there were a law stating that legislators wouldn’t be paid for working in a special session, and, in fact, would collectively owe the state for all costs associated with the failure to get the job done on time? Would that change how our state business is conducted?

Bad leadership as normal
If the state Legislature’s failure to balance the budget, as required by the state constitution in the allotted time, is a sign of dysfunction, then all of us who vote are enablers. We have come to accept bad leadership as normal.

A therapist might suggest that the first step to breaking the cycle of dysfunction (and there can be no argument that the normalcy of “special” sessions has become a cycle) is to force the failing parties to admit they have a problem, and to take responsibility for it. That could start with forcing legislators to give back a day’s pay for every extra day they require to get the job done. It is the standard in the business world. I’d even be willing to pay them a bonus if they got their work done ahead of schedule.

In the meantime, while budgets are being slashed, monitoring and repair of the environment is disappearing and local governments are being forced to raise taxes to cover expenses, Republicans found time to get the gay marriage ban question on the ballot, and whether it passes doesn’t matter. It will ensure their reelection.

The American Psychiatric Association publishes a diagnostics manual that identifies diagnosable conditions. I wouldn’t be surprised if under the classification of dysfunctional we will find the notation: “See 2011 Minnesota state government.”

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Scott Halverson on 05/24/2011 - 10:48 am.

    We have a HUGE SPENDING problem. WHY should the spending go up 22% every year

  2. Submitted by Howard Salute on 05/24/2011 - 10:59 am.

    Interesting observations. And your solutuion is…????

  3. Submitted by Tim Walker on 05/24/2011 - 11:02 am.

    Don, to expand upon your family analogy a bit: One parent wants to balance the budget by disowning a few children and sending them out into the wilderness.

  4. Submitted by Addie Moe on 05/24/2011 - 11:26 am.

    “Republicans found time to get the gay marriage ban question on the ballot, and whether it passes doesn’t matter. It will ensure their reelection”. Don, if this is true, I’m leaving the state. This ballot question alone should get these bums thrown out on their butts, aside from the fact they haven’t done their job – to deal with the budget, and oh yes, to produce jobs. I thought that was the big promise of the Republicans coming in?

  5. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 05/24/2011 - 11:56 am.

    Mr. Halverson,

    State spending has not gone up 22% in any year to my knowledge, nor will it in the future. First of all, state spending is determined on a “biennium” basis (every two years), so it’s generally impossible and inaccurate to cite single year increases/decreases.

    Secondly, the 22% figure you cite uses 2010-2011 biennium spending as its basis of comparison, which was artificially reduced by using federal stimulus funds to cover budget holes and delaying payments to schools to the next biennium:

    Regardless of whether we consider those past budget moves proper, it certainly isn’t appropriate to ignore those outlays when formulating future budgets.

    Finally, the 22% figure is a result of comparing that inaccurate figure against Gov. Dayton’s original 2012-2013 budget proposal of $37.3 billion, which he has since reduced to $35.8 billion. This represents only a 4% increase over real 2010-2011 spending, which is actually very close to expected inflation over that time period. (And I suspect that the Governor’s budget figure could drop further, if the legislative majority chooses to negotiate.)

    I think you will agree that within 1% of inflation does not represent a “HUGE SPENDING problem”? And hopefully it doesn’t lead to a state government shutdown.

  6. Submitted by Lori Tolonen on 05/24/2011 - 12:11 pm.

    Well stated opinion piece Mr. Shelby. I hear a call for real governance by actively engaged voters, not enablers; leaders and a public that can focus on the basic focus of running a successful state; and, a stick and carrot measure to ensure the legislators get the work of the people done efficiently, most of all not in expensive special sessions that play politics at the expense of civil rights as was done this month. Please join me in calling legislators and letting them know we will not stand for being your political pawns in any way, shape or form.

  7. Submitted by Nate Pete on 05/24/2011 - 12:13 pm.

    Spending is not going up 22% every year. That is a flat out lie.

  8. Submitted by Craig Huber on 05/24/2011 - 12:14 pm.

    @Scott Halverson:
    It isn’t going up 22% per year, even using the GOPs own cherry-picked numbers, let alone taking into account the actual full story. Get your numbers and terms straight.

    For those who want the real story, the 22% that gets thrown around is for the Governor’s original proposed 2012-13 biennium (_two_ years) over the projected actual amounts for 2010-11.

    The governor’s budget appears to have looked to restore the annual numbers to a little less than what they might have been if the bankster’s hadn’t imploded the economy with their poorly chosen side bets on imaginary mortgages (Masters of the Universe, indeed.)

    @Don Shelby:
    I’m not so sure the Gay Marriage ballot question is going to be “auto-win” button the GOP thinks it is this time around. Obviously, we’ll see.

    I would argue against the idea that this is just the legislature’s problem, however, or that punitive financial measures against legislators would resolve the core issue. There are strong feelings on all sides of the core financial issues… and both sides are obviously feeling like they’ve already compromised more than enough. Frankly, if it had any effect at all, it would likely just concentrate more power in the Governor’s office.


    The entire budgetary process itself needs to be revamped. The citizenry quite honestly does not know what it is paying for, and the way government budgets and finances get presented is largely to blame.

    Money gets funneled back and forth between state and local entities, inflating the numbers at both ends and making it hard to tell who is actually paying for what. Special funds and allocations further muddy the waters.

    Even as someone who has some limited experience with this type of accounting, I find it irritating to get a sense of the full picture… the typical citizen whose financial acumen _might_ reach the level of being able to balance their checkbook? Not a chance.

  9. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 05/24/2011 - 12:14 pm.

    Furthermore, looking back over state expenditures from 2000-2009, it looks like those average an annual rise right around inflation levels too. And the increase in spending has been ~1% less than the annual increase in state GDP:

  10. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/24/2011 - 12:19 pm.

    Scott (#1) is one reason why we are where we are at today. He says spending is going up by 22% every year.

    Well, this is wrong in many ways. First of all, it is a biennial budget, not every year. Second of all, the actual increase is 8.4% in the biennium, see:

    Hmm, less than 5% per year for a system where the largest cost factor IS health care, which often runs double digit increases in cost every year. And in a system that is increasing in terms of population by a percent or two every year.

    But Scott has in his mind the number of 22% per year. Of course 22% annual increase is outrageous, but the problem is that it’s just not true. But will Scott read about the actual percentage and accept it?

    Quite likely not.

    And that is the heart of the problem.

  11. Submitted by L.A. Krahn on 05/24/2011 - 12:41 pm.

    Wake up, Scott (post #1):

    Most of “government operations” is wages and benefits of workers. Across the board, while real wages/incomes have stagnated, [except at the very topmost of the pecking order] everyone’s health insurance is skyrocketing. That includes teachers of K-12 education (biggest slice of budget pie is K-12, biggest slice of that is wages/benefits). Being uninsured saves nobody money — we still all pay the tab collectively through our rising premiums & deductibles.

    And as a state we’re aging rapidly, which explains the increasing need for health & human services (2nd biggest slice of pie). The biggest slice of HHS is purchasing services, in the form of wages & benefits.

    Plus a lot of those purchased health services are NOT negotiated — where’s the 2011 HMO accountability bills that had bipartisan support in February? Shucks, quietly torpedoed by the fat-cats who have the means to do so & who like the playing field just the way it is.

    Health costs are the hidden driver. We’re paying the bill collectively (via a plethora of patchwork private and public programs) and it’s frankly unsustainable.

    Redirect that anger, and we might get somewhere.

  12. Submitted by Jim Camery on 05/24/2011 - 12:57 pm.

    I have to ask, Mr. Halverson, how in the world do you calculate spending going up 22% every year? Including federal money administered by the state like food stamps? Cherry-picking selected programs?

  13. Submitted by Jim Lavoie on 05/24/2011 - 01:30 pm.

    I agree with your observations, Don. Prices go up for needed services and we need to develop revenue to pay for them; it’s what we do for ourselves as a community. The Republicans have a ratchet perspective on taxes, they can only go down. Back when we had a surplus they divided it 1/3 each to the Dems, Repubs, and Jesse. Jesse made a rebate, the Dems used it on services and the Repubs lowered taxes. Now when we need the money, increasing the taxes to where they were is looked at as an abhorrent imposition. Dysfunctional indeed.

  14. Submitted by Patrick Wells on 05/24/2011 - 11:36 pm.

    Many of us love our state. There is no reason for financial disfunction other than human nature.
    AARP showed where college kids solved national budget problems in short order:
    Maybe, when legislators fail to reach agreement. Outside groups, such as college kids, acctg firms, etc., could submit suggestions, which if adopted, would pay a reward to the group submitting the suggestion. The suggestions, if submitted, would all need to be voted on by the legislators as a penalty for not having reached their own budget resolution.
    Since we are all after constitutional amendments, the above idea is mine to go to the Revisor of Statutes. I will pass it on to my legislators.

  15. Submitted by jody rooney on 05/25/2011 - 10:57 am.

    One has to appreciate the irony of the situation. For a legislature where the majority party believes in business it has violated one of the basic tenets of business, be on time and within budget.

    As they wail at the high cost of government they have apparently not looked in the mirror and in the immortal words of Pogo said “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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