Minnesota is officially in shutdown mode for only the second time in history. And all the frustration and indignation and rhetoric Republican legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton can summon won’t fix that very large problem.
So where do they turn now? How long will this last? What can happen that will end a dispute that is fundamentally unchanged since January.
In one small way, the gap between the GOP and the governor keeps shrinking. It’s down to $1.4 billion, according to Dayton.
But the principles that divide the two sides are unchanged.
No new taxes, say the Republicans.
In the name of fairness, at least the 7,700 richest Minnesotans who earn $1 million or more a year must be willing to pay higher taxes, says the governor.
Both the governor and Republican legislators left the Capitol before the midnight deadline last night. Both were stewing about being wronged by the other side. And both were claiming they would take their cases to the people.
Both sides counting on ‘the people’
It will be “up to the people of Minnesota to persuade them [Republicans],” Dayton said as the last night of negotiations ended dismally.
House Speaker Kurt Zellers, House Majority Leader Matt Dean and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch were saying the same thing. The legislators, they said, will scatter across the state to their home districts and explain, from their point of view, what went wrong.
“What’s next?” asked Dean, rhetorically. “An explanation. The governor is going to have a very difficult time explaining [why the state government has been shuttered].”
But Dayton won’t be alone in having some explaining to do.
Republican behavior while Dayton was speaking late Thursday night was boorish in an unprecedented way. Members of the House and Senate caucuses hooted and jeered when Dayton, who was holding a news conference, said things that offended them.
Longtime Capitol reporters said they’d never heard a governor receive the sort of disrespectful treatment Dayton received.
That behavior goes to either the zealotry or the inexperience of many Republican legislators, who apparently haven’t yet learned basic lessons of political civility.
Republican leaders wouldn’t comment on the surprising outbursts of their members, saying they weren’t in the room at the time.
They do talk about how unusual their caucuses are, but in only positive ways.
Zellers, for example, last night was talking about how unique these large freshman classes are. They are, he said, filled with people who came to St. Paul “as reformers.”
But they also have come with a sense of absolute rightness, which makes compromise difficult.
But Dayton, too, has some absolute principles. Those showed in the impassioned comments he made as the final day of negotiations crashed.
“I cannot accept a Minnesota where people with disabilities lose part of the time they are cared for by personal care attendants so that millionaires do not have to pay $1 more in taxes,” he said. “I cannot accept a Minnesota where young people cannot afford the rising tuitions at the University of Minnesota or a MNSCU campus so that millionaires do not have to pay $1 more in taxes. … That is not Minnesota.”
What is Minnesota?
Quick resolution unlikely
Well, right now it’s a closed-down mess. And there seems no end in sight. The state’s only other shutdown, in 2005, lasted eight days. It’s hard to imagine, given the breadth of work to be done, this shutdown can end so quickly.
Go back to the fundamental fight: revenue. Republicans say the state has enough, and they will resist increasing taxes, especially income taxes.
But what about other potential revenue streams?
Hot and muggy and unproductive as Thursday was, there were some humorous moments.
For example, around 11 a.m., Dick Day was in a tunnel in the Capitol. Day is the former Republican Senate minority leader who now lobbies at the Capitol for racinos.
Day was talking about the economic wonders of racinos and the terrible impact a shutdown will have on horse racing, when Republican legislative leaders came marching past.
“Just a second,” Day said to the reporter he was talking to.
He turned to the sober-faced Republican leaders and yelled at the top of his lungs: “I still have $250 million for you.” (That’s the amount racino backers say the state could collect each biennium from putting slot machines at the metro area’s two racetracks.)
The Republicans kept marching. Day shook his head in frustration.
He said Dayton has had one-on-one conversations with him about racinos. But he can’t get Republican leaders to listen to him.
“Minnesotans say they want it,” he said. “I think we have the votes in both the House and the Senate, but I can’t get the leaders to listen.”
He grumbled in disgust about how legislative leaders won’t listen because Republican Party leaders are opposed.
This leads to another constant complaint by DFLers about this new GOP. The legislators have little independence from the party and zealous party activists, DFLers argue. When an elected legislator steps away from the party line, he or she will get slapped down by party officials.
This is a new political reality, according to the likes of Roger Moe, who for years was the DFL’s Senate majority leader.
Did Moe ever even read a DFL platform?
“I might have perused it once,” said Moe, laughing.
He told a story of how in 1972, the far left in the DFL wing wrote a wildly left (for the time) platform.
“Somebody asked George Perpich (brother of the late Gov. Rudy Perpich) how he stood on the party platform,” Moe recalled. “George said, ‘Very lightly.’ ”
‘True believers’ complicate deal-making
But many of today’s Republican legislators are true believers in their party platform. Again, that makes negotiating a deal hard.
In the end, Republicans and Dayton weren’t only separated by fiscal issues. Republicans apparently were still loading bills with other goodies from their platform. In the final days of negotiations, Republicans were still insisting on legislation supporting voter ID and restrictions on abortion and stem cell research in their talks with Dayton.
After the talks had collapsed, Koch said those were matters that could have been “hammered out” with just a bit more negotiating. Fiscal issues were the key divide, she said.
Throughout the day, there was considerable talk — mostly from Republicans but occasionally even from DFLers such as Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk — that the two sides were close.
In retrospect, however, that seems unlikely.
Republicans at one point were said to be floating a $1 billion revenue plan. But nearly $800 million of that would have actually just kicked the state debt down the line. Included in that was a scheme to refloat a 2009 idea of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty that even Republicans found absurd. Under that plan, the state would sell tobacco settlement money in a bond to a purchaser who would pay pennies on the dollar for rights to the tobacco cash. Additionally, Republicans were willing to “shift” another $400 million away from money owed to K-12 education.
Dayton was unimpressed.
Meantime, Dayton was reducing the size of his fourth-tier income tax from the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans, to the wealthiest 0.03 percent.
Republicans were unimpressed.
Until about 9:30 last night, the “cone of silence” surrounding negotiations was maintained. (Remember, the cone of silence? Negotiators were going to bite their tongues, not say bad things about each other and not reveal what was being said in negotiations. Nice idea. Didn’t work.)
Night packed with posturing
Outside the cone last night there was a whole lot of posturing going on.
Republican House members paraded into their chamber and pronounced themselves ready to work at 8:30 last night. All they needed, they said, was for the governor to call a special session.
They got a lot of media attention for the little stunt, but it did little to keep government open. (By the way, Dean, the House majority leader, said that the House adopted rules this year that eliminates the possibility of its members collecting per diems during a special session. However, members from outside the metro area can collect money for mileage and lodging expenses.)
Republicans said the governor should at least push passage of a “lights-on bill” that would have kept government open for a while longer.
Dayton rejected the idea, calling it a stunt.
“We’ve all been clear — this was the deadline,” Dayton said.
Angry Republicans booed when Dayton said that.
Booing and finger-pointing may feel good. In some cases, it may even been justified.
But even in the midst of anger and adrenaline that comes at the end of long, failed negations, the people that led Minnesota to shutdown realized they must be the ones who get it running again.
Dayton, Koch and Zellers all said they were ready to meet again.
Presumably sometime soon they’ll figure out whatever they’ve been doing that hasn’t worked.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.