Political divide means no work for 20,000 state employees

T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

The Minnesota political leaders who came to power last January spoke of job creation and bringing certainty to balm the state’s wounded economy.

Six months later some 20,000 state employees are laid-off, state government partially shutdown, with no certainty how soon this big workforce will return to the job.

Newly elected Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton respectfully listens to Deputy Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel, R-Edina, at an early get acquainted gathering. Photos by T.W. Budig)

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders failed Thursday, June 30 to reach a budget agreement as the final hours of the biennium slipped away.

But the basic framework of the budget dispute has been in place for months.

Republicans came to the State Capitol — the GOP winning control of the Senate for the first time in almost 40 years — vowing not to raise taxes and to keep state spending in check. They pointed to the $3 billion in additional revenue already projected to spill into state coffers as sufficient, and stylized their budgeting stance as “living within your means.”

But Dayton called for some $37 billion in spending in his proposed state budget, about $3 billion more than what Republicans were willing to spend. Dayton professed no love for his budget.

“I’m critical of my budget. It’s not the budget I would have presented had I inherited a responsible financial situation from my predecessor — I did not,” said Dayton in February, referring to former Republican governor Tim Pawlenty.

“(But) I’m not willing to make barbaric cuts in the  essential services that affect people’s lives,” said Dayton.

Dayton included a variety of tax increases in his original budget proposal, including  a three-year temporary surcharge on incomes over $500,000, a property tax increase on homes valued at over $1 million.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, steps out his office followed by Dayton during a courtesy call Dayton paid to Republican leaders.

Republicans immediately indicated they could not support this.

Deputy Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel, R-Edina, did not want to proclaim the Dayton budget dead-on-arrival. “(But) I don’t think it has much of a heart beat,” he said at the time.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, spoke of Republicans upholding “their fundamental principles.”

Dayton later backed off his tax increase proposals  — the projected state budget deficit had dropped from $6 billion to $5 billion — and later called for an income tax hike on the wealthiest two percent of Minnesotans.

The governor also backed off his original $37 billion, two-year spending target, inviting Republicans to meet him half-way — at the 50-yard line, in an expression etched into session memories  — later offering about $35.7 billion in spending.

Dayton expressed astonishment lawmakers could fail to accept such an offer when it otherwise meant “draconian” cuts in state services. He blamed some of the perceived Republican pigheadedness on the Republican freshmen class, which he deemed ultra conservative.

But Republicans repeatedly spoke of the damage a tax increase would inflict on the state’s fragile economy. They also countered that a tax increase, if enacted, would fail to generate the expected revenue.

It would simply lead to more tax increases, they argued.

“If we make tough choices now, we can look forward to a very bright future for Minnesota,” said Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, of holding the spending line.

In general, Dayton and Republican leaders have kept the tone of the budget debate civil.

Indeed, they’ve expressed fondness for each other. Zellers recently spoke of knowing Dayton’s heart.

And Republican lawmakers while critical of the governor often say that they like Mark Dayton. He’s good guy, they say.

But that doesn’t mean they agree with him.