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Lessons from the Minnesota shutdown: Was it even necessary?

The Minnesota shutdown ended Wednesday after the Democratic governor and Republican Legislature came to a budget deal. But neither side was declaring victory.

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“One lesson from this is politicians, whenever possible, will move hard decisions into the future,” says Kathryn Pearson, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. The borrowing portion of the bill pushes the burden into the next election, when both sides will frame it to their respective advantage, says Professor Pearson. The unknown factor is the economy; the recovery will determine whether the future borrowing was prudent or not.

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“In essence, they’ve set it up for more conflict and more hard decisions,” she says.

The state government shutdown was considered “soft” because many essential services remained open. But if lawmakers agreed to a full shutdown, there is a sense compromise would have arrived sooner than it did.

“The more dramatic and complete the shutdown, the quicker the pain. The pressure builds, which helps push for quicker settlements” between parties, says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Public outcry against the shutdown was only starting to spark when the deal was reached, as the public started to recognize the economic impact of the loss in services, Professor Franklin says. For some Minnesotans, such as the 22,000 state workers put on furlough, the shutdown had a palpable effect. For others, the shutdown resulted in unexpected inconveniences, such as closed social-service agencies, which became more noticeable as the weeks went on.

One unexpected example: Last week brewer MillerCoors announced it would be forced to remove 39 brands of beer from every restaurant, bar, and liquor store in the state because the state permitting agency was not open to renew its brand label registration.

Franklin says that despite the inconvenience to the public, it’s not likely voters will carry those frustrations to the voting booth in 2012.

“Rarely have state shutdowns led to long-term economic damage to voters within the state. Even when we’ve seen temporarily layoffs, most of those states have restored the pay that was lost. The [Minnesota] shutdown was short enough that the damage is pretty minimal. By the end of the year it will be seen as pretty minor,” he says.

Looking back, voters may recognize that the deal signed into law Wednesday is very similar to the one Dayton rejected during talks June 30, which led to the shutdown. The shutdown might have been avoided if Dayton realized that compromise was unavoidable between the two parties, Professor Jacobs says.

“I think the initial shutdown was not entirely clear as to its consequences, but they became more so when time went on,” Jacobs said. “And all these things start to pile up.”

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