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Wait, why are Minnesota lawmakers now talking about a government shutdown?

REUTERS/Eric Miller
Signage advising campers of conditions at Tettegouche State Park during the 2011 Minnesota government shutdown.

It might seem like things are going relatively well in Minnesota: Legislators passed a two-year budget last year, and this year, the state boasts a healthy surplus. 

So why were lawmakers talking Tuesday about a government shutdown? 

In the House State Government Finance Committee, lawmakers debated two bills that would continue some level of funding for state government programs in the event legislators do not pass a two-year state budget by July 1 in odd-numbered years, as the state constitution requires. While some state functions are financed through ongoing and automatic funding, most programs receive their funding directly through appropriations from lawmakers. Without such funding, those programs cannot continue. 

Instead of shutting the programs down, one of the proposals debated this week would continue state funding at the same level as the year before for things like road projects, prisons, parks, child care and other health care programs tied to federal funding. Another bill would take a different approach: continuing funding for all state services, but only a 90 percent of what those services received in the most recent year.

For many legislators, the memories are still fresh from the last government shutdown in 2011, when the state faced a nearly $6 billion budget deficit and a Republican-controlled Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton couldn’t reach an agreement over how to address it. The state government shut down for 20 days and roughly 19,000 state workers were temporarily laid off. 

The motivation behind both bills is the same: to have some funding for state programs if that ever happens again. “This bill won’t be needed unless there’s a government shutdown, and of course, we hope that never happens,” said Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, the author of one of the bills.

Knoblach used to push back on the idea of letting any state funding continue if lawmakers couldn’t reach a deal. The deadline exists to give lawmakers motivation to get their work done and pass a budget deal. But he’s changed his position, particularly after the Legislature went to court last summer with the governor over his decision to line-item veto funding for the House and Senate. 

The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Dayton’s veto, but they also included an important footnote in their ruling: The separation of powers prevents the courts from providing emergency funding for state programs, even in the event of the shutdown. The Constitution gives the so-called power of the purse to the Legislature, not the courts. “We are unaware of any authority that allows the Judicial Branch to authorize spending simply because parties ask a court to do so,” the ruling reads. “In fact, our cases suggest that the Judicial branch does not have the inherent power to appropriate money.” 

State Rep. Jim Knoblach
State Rep. Jim Knoblach

That ruling flies in the face of three findings from lower courts — all of which were dealing with imminent or ongoing government shutdowns at some point over the last 15 years — that the judicial branch can provide funding in the case of an emergency. It could also make any future shutdown a lot more painful for Minnesotans and politicians. “I’ve thought the June 30th deadline ought to be enough time for the Legislature and the governor to get things done…but the recent Supreme Court case between Gov. Dayton and the Legislature has changed the landscape,” Knoblach said. “Minnesotans in the future will likely be facing much harder shutdowns of services than they have in the past.” 

Knoblach’s bill would continue funding for specific state services, including the executive, legislative and judicial branches. “That’s so there can’t be any one branch of government putting undue pressure on another branch of government,” he said.

The author of the other bill, Rep. Randy Jessup, R-Shoreview, was not in the Legislature during the last government shutdown, but he remembers how it made him feel as a citizen. “For 21 days in 2011 we were in the national news, and we were not being viewed very positively on a national level,” he said. “Minnesotan citizens want us to come together and get things done.” 

His proposal would fund state services at 90 percent of their most recent funding levels. Facing a possible 10 percent cut of services across the board, Jessup said his bill would provide some motivation for lawmakers to strike a deal. “It behooves us to come up with a piece of legislation that is onerous to make sure we do get a budget accomplished in the future,” Jessup said. 

State Rep. Randy Jessup
State Rep. Randy Jessup

Neither bill tries to define what an “essential” state services is, an arduous task that was attempted during the 2011 government shutdown. A district court judge appointed former Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz to preside over weeks of hearings to hear pleas for and against funding certain state services.

Only two states — Wisconsin and Rhode Island — allow broad and automatic state spending  even without a budget deal. In Wisconsin, if the Legislature does not amend or eliminate any existing appropriation on or before the beginning of a new biennium, all existing appropriations are in effect in the new fiscal year and all subsequent fiscal years until amended or eliminated.

And while times are good in Minnesota now, Knoblach said, there’s no better time to put some kind of measure in place incase things go bad. “I think we should do something on this this year. We are fortunate we have a budget surplus, it’s an even numbered year and we don’t have any kind of an imminent situation,” he said. “Dayton has expressed some interest in doing something on this.”

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Sandra Marks on 04/18/2018 - 09:09 am.

    A promise was made–

    shore up funding for MSRS!!!

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/18/2018 - 10:25 am.

    A skeptical eye

    The concept makes sense – to me, at least – but if it were up to me, and of course it isn’t, I’d feel a lot more comfortable with Mr. Knoblach’s proposal than Mr. Jessup’s.

    If the idea is to provide some sort of incentive for legislators and the executive branch to stop sitting on their hands and get a budget deal done, Mr. Jessup’s proposal is, or at least could easily be, counterproductive. What I see in Mr. Jessup’s proposal is a new legislative means of giving anti-tax, anti-government reactionaries what they’ve been demanding for years, and for some Republicans, at least, an automatic 10% cut in state spending is, in fact, an incentive for them to do nothing and let the government grind to a halt. Cutting state spending, and federal spending, and local spending, and any other kind of spending that doesn’t meet their particular definition of “essential” is what these people are all about, politically. They might well argue that a 10% cut isn’t nearly enough.

    Knoblach’s proposal at least seems like one that would inflict somewhat less pain on ordinary Minnesotans while the branches of government argue over what should be done about the budget, though it’s worth noting that the devil is in the details, and there’s no detail provided beyond the notion of providing for enough funding to keep the three branches, and some unidentified specific services, operating at some unspecified level. Jessup’s suggestion might well encourage a stalemate that could drag on for weeks, months, years, while people who like to call themselves “conservative” gloat over whatever dollars they’ve saved in taxes and ignore the headlines documenting the inconvenience and perhaps suffering they’ve inflicted on their fellow Minnesotans in order to save that sum.

    There ain’t no free lunch.

    Roads and bridges cost ‘x’ dollars. If they cost ‘x+1’ dollars next year, it’s not the fault of either the Governor or the legislature. It’s the private sector charging the state more for the same services, and even that may not be so they can improve their own bottom line at our expense. It may well be that they’re having to charge more because they’re having to pay more for materials and wages. Inflation happens. It’s the nature of the beast.

  3. Submitted by John Webster on 04/18/2018 - 11:48 am.

    Parliamentary System

    It’s just my pipe dream, but the best long-term solution to political gridlock is to adopt a British-style parliamentary system at both the state and federal levels. The one-house legislature would elect the Governor/President and cabinet level officers. The majority party members would then be clearly responsible for the actions and the results of the policies they enact and implement. No more partisan fingerpointing: you elected Joe Blow as Governor and he’s awful – your head is on the block, too.

    Alas, a parliamentary system has something that all politicians abhor: much greater and more transparent accountability that threatens their longevity in office, which is by far the top priority for almost all politicians whatever their proclaimed beliefs.

    P.S. Eric Black agrees with this idea.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/18/2018 - 12:17 pm.

      Me Too!

      It would be great to see one state go to this. Nebraska is already unicameral.

      I never understood the reasoning, if any, of states having two chambers.

  4. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/18/2018 - 12:41 pm.

    “…continuing funding for all state services, but only a 90 percent of what those services received in the most recent year.”

    And if they fail to reach agreement during the next budgeting session, is it 90% of 90%?

    Oh, boy!

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/18/2018 - 12:42 pm.


    The motivation for these bills is simply to insulate Republicans from their Constitutional responsibilities, because they know they can’t be trusted to do their jobs. Once again, if magic and prayers fail well, at least the Government can keep running? No. We already have a blueprint for government, and Republicans are always trying to change that blueprint because they can’t govern.

    Do your jobs and negotiate budgets in good faith with rational policies rather than pull clever-by-half stunts to circumvent the Constitution and you won’t have any problems. These bills are being proposed because as many times as they’ve tried, Republicans haven’t found a way to get someone else blamed for their fiscal malfeasance.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 04/18/2018 - 04:36 pm.

      My thoughts exactly

      but stated much more clearly.
      I would only quibble with that last sentence. Republicans are pretty good at getting Democrats to take the blame for their fiscal malfeasance. At least at the National level, but it happens here as well. Nationally this latest tax cut fiasco is going to add a trillion per year to the national debt so far Republicans don’t see that as an issue, but the second Democrats take over there will be hell to pay for those deficits.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/19/2018 - 11:09 am.

        Point taken

        I see in a comment here a former Democratic legislator thinks switching to parliamentary system is better idea than holding Republicans responsible for their fiscal irresponsibility. Instead of defeating Republicans at the voting booths, we’ll change the government to accommodate them. And so it goes. That’s centrism for you.

  6. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 04/18/2018 - 02:35 pm.

    continuing appropriations

    I put in bills for a continuing appropriation and also for a parliamentary system years ago. totally support.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/19/2018 - 08:23 am.


    Proportional representation has it’s advantages but if ya’ll think our current crop of politicians can tear up our Constitutions and write better ones I’d like to what you’re smoking? Yeah, sure, let’s let the folks who thought Trump and Clinton were the best possible candidates and presidents write us a new Constitution, what could go wrong?

    Let’s stay focused here, the issue is budgets and the fact that our government is supposed to produce one, it’s not THAT difficult as long as you take it seriously. The problem is Republicans just don’t know how to do budgets. Between their antipathy for basic arithmetic, hostility towards democracy, and reliance on magical thinking, complex financial budgeting is simply beyond their abilities. All proposals like this would do is take budgeting off the table so they can focus on REAL issues like abortion and making sure there no such thing as local government anymore.

    You understand that a mechanism that automatically continues the existing budget at 90% would produce 10% reductions over the course of consecutive budget cycles right? That’s a dysfunctional Republican dream come true… they wouldn’t have to do anything and they’d get guaranteed budgets cuts as long as they stalled budgets!

    Please, the problem is Republicans, not our Constitution. Before we try for a better constitution let’s focus on getting better Republicans.

  8. Submitted by John Appelen on 04/19/2018 - 03:40 pm.

    Just Curious

    What has been done to ensure a Governor does not repeat Dayton’s bad faith veto the Legislative branches budget stunt?

    That breach of common sense must be dealt with.

    • Submitted by richard owens on 04/20/2018 - 10:01 am.

      Daudt’s team had added a provision to the budget bill

      that would de-fund the Department of Revenue, in the event the bill was not signed. Dayton referred to it as a “poison pill.” We still don’t know who added it, as it was not in the bill as passed (hmmm.)

      In response, Dayton simply used the line-item veto to defund the legislature, which, by the way, does not return unspent monies to the State General Fund, as many budgets do, but instead they save the money and keep it for the Majority’s quiet use.

      In order to be successful in their lawsuit, the Republicans would have had to show harm (that they didn’t have the money to run the legislature). They did have money but did not want to reveal how much, and the legislature was not in session.

      My take on this was that it was a sneaky way to force the Governor into signing a bill he otherwise might reject.

      This is more “blackmail” style than “negotiating”, and it seems to mimic the same techniques used to stop anything Obama wanted by using the “Debt Ceiling” as coercion.

      I find this destructive and “sneaky” and wish Republicans would stop trying to force unpopular agenda itmes when we have so many we could agree on.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/20/2018 - 12:05 pm.

        Force seems to be the way of politics today. I mean the Governor tried to force a renegotiation after the session.

        Hopefully the GOP finds a way to tie Dayton’s hands this year. Line item vetoing a project is one thing, but trying to cut the funding for a branch of our “checks and balances” government seems like someone trying to play Emperor…

        • Submitted by richard owens on 04/20/2018 - 01:00 pm.

          Force is an authoritarian value.

          The resentment caused by Dayton’s use of the line-item veto was necessary in order for him to conclude the budgeting process.

          Last year, the House adjourned in order to force the Governor. This poison pill was another stab at partisanship in budgeting.

          Vengeance is a cycle interuptted by honest compromise and broad terms of agreement.

          As President Obama observed, you can campaign to your base exclusively, but you cannot govern that way.

          We don’t have these kinds of problems in township boards or school boards where there is a common sense of purpose and where persuasion overcomes confrontation. These problems came (IMHO) from the absolute perfect litmus tests brought by the Tea Birchers to purify their party.

          They still don’t get along with anybody, but they can stop alot from getting accomplished.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/20/2018 - 03:55 pm.


            If he disliked what was passed through the legal legislative process, then he should have vetoed the whole bill and shutdown the government. Not attempted to attack a branch of our government.

            It will be interesting to see how these folks behave this year. 🙂

            • Submitted by richard owens on 04/21/2018 - 05:45 pm.

              Dayton has submitted a budget, written down.

              The secret is still what IS the Republican budget? A bunch of Omnibuses, some made with the “delete all” technique that uses a placeholder instead of an actual proposal.

              Am I to understand you think the Republican tactics are okay or even useful?

              I still observe the Republican Majority to be wanting confrontation and coercion and not necessarily cooperation compromise or even debate on the merits of their own budget choices. I expect last minute shenanigans once again.

              Must this be a game of raw power and bullying? Don’t we all want a better Minnesota?

              • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/22/2018 - 11:30 am.


                Remember that beauty (better) is in the eye of the beholder. And we have 2 tribes in MN who see “better” very differently, and both are happy to ignore the other Tribe when they have a chance.

                Remember the LGBT Marriage mess… GOP tries to pass an amendment stopping it… The vote is very close and then the Gov signs the law making it legal the next year. Just ignoring the 48% who were against it.

                My point being that as both sides move into their own corners, this going to get and stay ugly.

                And the governor having the authority to unilaterally line item veto items does not help the kids to play together nicely either. Remember all the gnashing of teeth when Pawlenty did questionable things with that authority… No wonder the opposing party tries to tie the governors hands. 🙂

              • Submitted by Dana Dickson on 04/24/2018 - 06:51 am.

                Don’t we all want a better Minnesota?

                No. Republicans, as a matter of ideology, are opposed to government. With the exception of government that kills the undeserving poor and prostitutes itself to the trickling elite.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/20/2018 - 10:12 am.

      Bad faith?

      The courts ruled that Dayton’s veto was legal and Constitutional. Just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean it was bad faith or a breach of common sense, on the contrary.

      I thought it was a brilliant move, and I predicted he would prevail in court.

      Frankly, I think its facile to pretend that the veto isn’t a major motivation for this sudden Republican enthusiasm for “lights-on” legislation. Historically when Republicans shut down the government, they’ve voted down “lights-on” provisions, why the sudden epiphany? The most obvious explanation is that since they’ve now established that their own budget is not immune to the consequences of their mismanagement and intransigents; they’re trying to create a mechanism that let’s them sabotage budgets without risking their own funding. It was all great fun to throw hand grenades into everyone else’s budget, until the grenade bounced back into their own laps… now it’s like: “Well, let’s make sure the government keeps working no matter what.” Seriously, how is this not obvious?

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