Minnesota shutdown prompts political blame game

By The Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — With Minnesota’s state government closed for business, the focus shifted Friday to who’s to blame.

The shutdown started at 12:01 a.m. Friday, the product of an ongoing dispute over taxes and spending between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative majorities. Talks fell apart well before the deadline, leaving state parks closed on the brink of the Fourth of July weekend, putting road projects at a standstill and forcing thousands of state worker layoffs.

The heads of the state’s Republican and Democratic parties each say the other side is responsible.

Minnesota GOP Chairman Tony Sutton called Dayton a “piece of work” and accused him of inflicting “maximum pain” for political reasons.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin laid the blame on Republicans, saying they drove the state to a shutdown to protect millionaires from tax increases sought by Dayton.

“Shame on you for putting the interests of your rich campaign donors ahead of the well-being of the constituents you are supposed to represent,” Martin said.

The Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a left-leaning group supportive of Dayton, plans to run weekend radio ads in three popular vacation areas blaming Republicans for the impact of the shutdown, including closed state parks. The group also debuted a “shutdown shame” website.

Though nearly all states are having severe budget problems this year, Minnesota stands as the only government to have shut down, thanks to Dayton’s determination to raise taxes on high-earners to close a $5 billion deficit and the Republican Legislature’s refusal to go along. The shutdown would be Minnesota’s second in six years as the partisan divide deepens.

Here, as in 21 other states, there’s no way to keep government operating past the end of a budget period without legislative action, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Even so, only four other states – Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Tennessee – have had shutdowns in the past decade, some lasting mere hours.

There was no word early Friday of any plan to continue budget negotiations.

Even before the final failure, officials padlocked highway rest areas and state parks, herding campers out. The full impact will hit Friday morning as thousands of laid-off state employees stay home until further notice and a wide array of services are suspended.

Critical functions such as state troopers, prison guards, the courts and disaster responses will continue. On Friday morning, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz will begin the court-appointed job of sifting through appeals from groups arguing in favor of continued government funding for particular programs.

Dayton addressed the looming shutdown at about 10 p.m. Thursday, emerging after a day of fitful negotiations with legislative Republicans to say the two sides were still fundamentally divided over how much the state should spend the next two years and that the shutdown was inevitable.

“This is a night of deep sorrow for me,” Dayton said.

Republican lawmakers had gathered at the Capitol for hours, demanding that Dayton do what he had said for months he would not do: Call a special session so they could pass a “lights on” budget bill to keep the government running. The governor insisted he would not give up that leverage without a total budget solution that incorporated the many facets of state spending. The governor has sole power to call a special session, but once one starts, it’s lawmakers who will decide when to adjourn.

“I think the governor’s insistence that we pass a full budget is not going to be of much comfort to Minnesotans who are going to see delays on the highways because construction projects stop,” said Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo. “It’s not going to comfort people who can’t use our state parks, or who can’t get a driver’s license.”

Officials in state parks had already started herding out campers Thursday, saying it would have been too difficult in the dead of night. Also Thursday, people rushed to get driver’s and fishing licenses at offices and service centers that would be locked up by morning.

A stoppage in Minnesota also halts non-emergency road construction, shuts the state zoo and Capitol, and stops child-care assistance for the poor. More than 40 state boards and agencies expected to go dark.

The shutdown in retrospect was something of a slow-motion disaster, with a new Democratic governor and new Republican legislative majorities at odds for months over how to eliminate a $5 billion state budget deficit. Dayton has been determined to raise taxes on high-earners to close the deficit, while Republicans insisted that it be closed only by cuts to state spending.

Even after the shutdown looked like a certainty, Dayton and Republicans did not soften their conflicting principles. Dayton said he campaigned and was elected on a promise not to make spending cuts to a level he called “draconian.” He said he has been more flexible than Republicans in trying to compromise in order to acknowledge their principles.

“I’ve gone halfway, and I’m not going to go further,” Dayton said.

Republicans have been equally firm. Republican Sen. Michelle Benson said earlier in the day she wouldn’t budge on raising taxes or new revenue in any form.

“If we don’t start taking a different approach to how we manage our government, we’re going to swing from one bad economic circumstance to another,” Benson said. “We can’t just keep throwing more money at government and hoping that makes things better.”

Dayton has proposed raising taxes on couples earning more than $300,000 and individuals making more than $180,000. He said Thursday night that he had offered to target the tax increase to even higher earners, those making more than $1 million a year.

Republicans have opposed any new taxes or new revenue sources, arguing instead that the state should rely on spending cuts, including deeper reductions in health and welfare spending than Dayton is willing to accept.

Some GOP moderates have talked of breaking the impasse with other means of raising revenue, such as eliminating tax breaks or authorizing a casino. Dayton has said he is open to such ideas.

Lawmakers now face the prospect of spending the holiday weekend at parades and events in their districts, facing a public who can point to an oversized symbol of gridlock at the state Capitol. Some admitted that Dayton might have the upper hand politically.

“I personally think the Republicans will probably be more damaged than the governor” by the shutdown, said freshman Rep. Mike LeMieur, R-Little Falls, who toppled an incumbent Democrat in November. “The fact is that we’re all up for re-election again next year, and he’s not up for three years.”