End government shutdown threat for good with bipartisan legislation

This opinion editorial originally appeared in the Star Tribune:

A news alert recently popped up on my phone: “Minn. lawmakers move hush-hush budget in rushed special session.”

Another year, another narrowly avoided partial-shutdown of state government. Weeks of hand-wringing, political posturing, midnight meetings and speculative reporting culminated in a marathon all-night special session over Memorial Day weekend.

Minnesotans are still attempting to sift through the he-said-she-said to figure out what our elected officials did and how it affects our lives. Depending on who’s being interviewed, it’s either rainbows and unicorns or the zombie apocalypse.

Members of both parties have attempted to improve this process over the years yet the outcome never changes.

Are we content to go on like this forever?

The system needs an overhaul. Lawmakers should end this ridiculous fiasco once and for all by passing the “End Government Shutdowns Act.” This is the Minnesota version of a bipartisan bill recently introduced in Congress and there are several names to choose from. The “Stop Stupidity Act” is also a strong contender.

The bill would authorize an automatic continuing appropriation, which means that if state lawmakers fail to pass a budget on time, Minnesota’s government would continue to be funded at current levels until a new budget is passed.

The idea has been tested in two states with excellent results, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. It takes the pressure off the deadline to pass a budget, which means there’s less incentive to engage in 11th-hour political gamesmanship and hardball negotiation tactics. There’s also no reason to force a sleep-deprived legislature to pass the entire state budget in the middle of the night when no one is watching.

Perhaps surprisingly, both states have continued to pass budgets! And best of all: The public is never concerned about a potential state government shutdown.

Liberals may worry increased funding needs won’t be met under this scenario. But if the public wants spending increases, lawmakers will feel the pressure to deliver. No one wants to be accused of underfunding health care or education in the next election.

Conservatives may worry this will make it impossible to cut runaway government spending. But when in Minnesota’s history have real budget cuts ever taken place? This bill could help hold down spending in areas that are prone to bureaucratic bloat, where spending growth is a result of backroom negotiations, not backed by public support.

The idea has earned bipartisan support from Minnesota legislators over the years, with members of both parties authoring at least 15 similar bills since the 2005 partial government shutdown. The Republican-majority Senate voted for a temporary “lights on” bill a couple of weeks ago, so they might be open to a more permanent solution. We also have a local, vocal proponent in Hamline University’s political science professor, David Schultz.

In case you’re still not convinced of the bipartisan nature of the proposal, similar versions have been introduced in Congress by members of both parties, including Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).

The political conditions might just be perfect to get an automatic continuing appropriation passed next year, with no budget negotiation looming and every member of the state House and Senate up for re-election.

The idea is worth consideration. Just one request: Let’s debate it in broad daylight.