Saturday, May 21, 2011

The New Minnesota Normal: Special Sessions and Government Shutdowns

The 2011 regular session of the Minnesota Legislature limps to an end without a budget deal. No news here, it was entirely predictable. Not since 1999–the first year of Jesse Ventura’s term as governor–has a budget session of the Minnesota Legislature ended on time without a special session, partial governmental shutdown, or a controversial ending such as in 2009 when Pawlenty used his unallotment power (subsequently declared illegal by the Minnesota Supreme Court) to balance the budget.

What has emerged is the new normal for Minnesota politics. The new normal is that the completion of the budget does not occur by the constitutionally-mandated deadline in May but instead July 1–the commencement of the new budget year. That seems to be the new deadline. But even then, that date, like October 1, for the federal government, appears more suggestive than drop dead. A threatened partial shut down in 2003 and then a real one in 2007 too eased the stigma of missing July 1, in Minnesota.

Why the New Normal?

The question becomes why? Why has the new normal emerged? Why does it seem impossible to reach budget agreement? One answer is divided government, yet even back to the days when Perpich was governor and the DFL controlled the legislature there were special sessions to address the budget such as in 1985. Under Carlson and then Ventura they became more frequent and then under Pawlenty and now Dayton they have emerged as the new normal. No; divided government is only a partial answer.

There are two causes explaining the rise of the new normal. The first is a growing ideological divide over the nature of government. The second is structural, questioning the efficacy of the current budget process.

Why Government?

The governor and the GOP-led legislature are as far apart today as they were in January regarding all the essentials over the budget. Dayton wants to spend $37 billion and erase the $5 billion deficit with some cuts that do not hurt the poor or education and with tax increases on the wealthy. The GOP wants to spend $34 billion and erase the deficit with cuts alone that seem to burden the poor, elderly, education, and local governments.

At the heart of the dispute between the Governor and the GOP is a basic difference in their rival views of the government versus the market. The GOP generally seems to see government and taxes as bad, an intruding upon the wisdom and functioning of markets. Let markets act and they will generate jobs prosperity, and solve the basic problems of society.

For Dayton, while market solutions and the private sector are the preferred places to produce jobs and make decisions, they recognize markets fail. Markets fail to address needs of equity. They produce inequities in wealth and income distribution, they fail to address core problems of education funding and disparities, they fail to address problems in infrastructure investment.

No, it does not look like the GOP wants no government. Many still find it necessary to hire police and enforce basic laws, and apparently to enact laws to prevent same-sex couples from marrying and women from terminating pregnancies or give tax breaks to the wealthy. The real difference between the GOP and Dayton and the DFL is over how much government and what government should do in our society. It is a debate between rivaling views-government versus the market, the individual versus society.

The debate over “why government” is ideological. Arising simultaneously are two other phenomena aggravating the debate over why government–the triumph of ideology over pragmatism and party polarization.

Daniel Bell famously wrote in the 1960s a book entitled “The End of Ideology.” There it is described a United States where belief was that we had reached consensus on basic issues of what constitutes the good life and the role of government in society. The issue was not ideology or goals but merely technique of the means to the end. Nearly 50 years later, we now seem to be living not with the end of ideology but with its resurgence.

There are basic ideological divides over means and ends. But more importantly, the ideological divide for some means all or nothing. By that, if one side is right the other must be wrong and therefore no compromise is possible. Thus, the emergence of ideology over pragmatism.

Political parties nationally and in Minnesota seem more polarized than 20, 30, or 40 years ago. There is more ideological cohesion in the parties, especially for the GOP, than in the past. This is a product of special interest politics and caucuses which are dominated by ideological extremists.

Thus, combine politically polarized parties with a take no prisoners ideological divide over the role of government and what do you get?

A Flawed Budget Process

But the polarization is only one problem. The second is the flawed budget process in Minnesota. It is a process built for the horse and buggy days trying to operate in the 21st century. Government is so much more complex, the budget numbers so much larger, the functions more diverse, that it is perhaps impossible to reach consensus and make decisions between the beginning of January and the State Constitution forbids the legislature to meet in regular session after the first Monday following the third Saturday in May in any year. There simply may not be enough time to do the budget by law.

But think also how flawed the current budget process is right now. The old governor makes the initial budget. New governor is elected and needs to update it to reflect his priorities and the fiscal forecast in November. The Legislature comes to work in early January and then it waits until late January or so for the governor to release the budget. Then they all wait until late February for the updated fiscal forecast.

Thus, it is really not until late February or March that the work on the budget commences. And even then, there are separate hearings in the House and Senate, forcing conference committees to act. The budget also is really ten separate bills, with spending distinct from taxation, and no real work gets done until there are agreements on the different spending targets for each of the areas such as HHS, K-12, and so on.

Sound confusing? It is. It is also inefficient. At least two months are wasted at the beginning of every budget cycle waiting for the governor’s budget, the fiscal forecast, and then agreement on budget targets. Now add more wrinkle–budgets are created right after state elections when often many new legislators or constitutional officers are elected. They are green, often learning on the job while creating a new budget. In a distant past when life and budgets were less complicated (and smaller), perhaps it was possible to do all this with a part-time citizen legislature. But those days have passed. A new budget process is needed, with new time lines and ways to move the work along.

Thus, as the session ends the only real question is whether there is a budget by July 1. The bet here is 60/40 odds of a partial shutdown. The reasons are ideological and process-driven, producing the new normal.

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