Shutdown could have political consequences for both parties

Rally at the Capitol
After three weeks of a government shutdown, many Minnesotans are angry the people they elected to balance the state budget failed to do so. Pictured, Monique Dubos of Minneapolis joined hundreds of others for a rally against the state government shutdown at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Thursday, June 30, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

After three weeks of a government shutdown during which more than 20,000 state workers sat at home laid off, and state parks, rest stops and countless other operations sat idle, many Minnesotans are angry the people they elected to balance the state budget failed to do so.

Again, Minnesota lawmakers plugged a budget gap with short-term fixes. Rather than making structural changes in the way the state spends and collects money, more payments to schools will be deferred and future tobacco-settlement proceeds will now be tapped for cash.

As a likely consequence, the state's budget problems will return, and that fact hasn't been lost on voters who may remember the gridlock that dominated St. Paul on their next trip to the polls.

At a water park in Maplewood, Linda Blazovich said she hopes now that shutdown is over, voters will push lawmakers to work harder toward common ground.

As if on cue, as she spoke, the song "Stuck in the Middle with You," started playing over the loudspeakers.

As she listened the lyrics, "clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am — stuck in the middle with you," Blazovich said she'd had enough of the partisan fighting.

"You know that was my first thought... let's vote them all out because they just can't even work together," said Blazovich, a Democrat. "What's the point?"

Blazovich agreed with Gov. Mark Dayton that a combination of tax increases and spending cuts were necessary to fix the budget, but also that Republicans had good points too.

"We can't go on like this because we don't get anywhere," Blazovich said.

Bruised reputations
Annette Meeks, founder and CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, thinks the shutdown hurts Democrats and Republicans equally. "We are going to have a Wild West of elections in 2012," Meeks said.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

On the other side is Republican Steve Lieb of Cologne, who said he's not happy with any of the state's politicians.

"Their deal is to financially manage the state, which clearly means they didn't do their jobs," he said. Lieb, who works for a paper company, has to cooperate with a lot of people or his shipments from Germany won't make it to his customers. He's concerned that lawmakers are becoming increasingly entrenched.

"Maybe that gives me an insight into how much cooperation is needed -- even with people you don't necessarily like, you don't agree with," he said.

After months of watching Minnesota's entrenched politicians, Lieb said he hopes third-party candidates might be able to attract enough support to win.

If others agree, the Independence Party could receive a boost from the meltdown, University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said.

Independent impetus
Republican Steve Lieb of Cologne, Minn., hopes the shutdown aftermath will give rise to strong Independence Party candidates.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"The political stakes of the government shutdown are enormous," Jacobs said. "We are seeing the contest between a progressive view of politics that has its roots back in Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale and others, and a new conservatism that is fundamentally challenging the role and scope of government."

The big question is who voters will blame for the shutdown. Republicans won control of the Legislature after prevailing in several extremely close elections. But Dayton, a Democrat, and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner together received 55 percent of the votes in last fall's gubernatorial election. Both called for tax increases, while Republican nominee Tom Emmer opposed them.

After Minnesota's first government shutdown in 2005, Republicans lost control of the House and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty nearly lost his re-election bid. With Republicans now in control of both houses of the Legislature, and with every member up for re-election next year, the GOP is a prime target, Jacobs said.

"The legislators are going to be first exposed to what might be rageful voters looking to punish politicians who contributed to the shutdown," Jacobs said. "They won't have that chance with Mark Dayton for more than three years. So the Republicans just might be on the short end of the stick in being in front of voters and being exposed to that punishment first."

The ability of Republican legislators to block Dayton's effort to tax the wealthy could fuel the wave of smaller government conservatism that gave the GOP leadership of the Legislature.

Upcoming comeuppance
Matt Entenza, former DFL state representative and founder of Minnesota 2020, thinks Republicans will pay the price for the shutdown during next year's elections.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Annette Meeks, Emmer's running mate and a longtime conservative writer, thinks Republicans and Democrats come out of the shutdown equally damaged.

"We are going to have a Wild West of elections in 2012," she said.

The shutdown was the result of core philosophical differences, not political posturing or game playing, Meeks said. In the aftermath, voters are more keen to the extent of the state budget, and should now know exactly what their choice between a Democrat or a Republican will mean.

Former Democratic state Rep. Matt Entenza said the shutdown highlighted how much Minnesota has changed.

"In Minnesota politics, we've moved backwards, and now we're to a point where compromise is a dirty word," Entenza said. "You hear a lot of politicians say, 'Well, I can't compromise because if I compromise the voters who I listen to are going to be mad at me.' And that makes for a state in a lot of gridlock."

Entenza is convinced that the sharp-edged conservatism that helped the GOP win control of the Legislature last year will cost the party its majority next year. The election will be a referendum on the GOP's opposition to compromise, even if it takes a state shutdown to accomplish their goals, he said.

"I think this may be an example of where they win a battle and lose the war," Entenza said.

Minnesota Republicans and Democrats have a rich history of fierce debate. Until the last several years the state was often held up as an example of good government.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Minnesota Miracle, when after prolonged debate the two major parties passed sweeping school funding and tax reform, drawing national attention for their efforts.

Now Republicans and Democrats no longer seem to share common beliefs about the basic role of government. Balancing the budget is not going to get any easier. The solution the two sides settled on this week could result in another big deficit two years from now.

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