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Stop train wreck of government shutdowns before they happen

St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN) – January 8, 2017

One of the first acts of both the new Minnesota Legislature and Congress should be to eliminate the possibility of the train wreck of a government shutdown. Currently, the government shuts down when government spending bills are not passed into law before the start of a new budget period.

Lawmakers should authorize funding for the government to continue to function when a budget year starts without new spending bills signed into law.

Government shutdowns hurt the people government is supposed to serve. During a government shutdown, we continue to pay taxes for services, buildings and monuments that we are prohibited from using.

For the 2013 federal government shutdown, our government attempted to block veterans and other citizens from visiting the National World War II Memorial and the National Mall by using its resources to erect barricades. Busloads of veterans on an Honor Flight tour sidestepped the government barricades to visit the World War II Memorial. The federal government had the money to erect barricades, yet it claimed it had to prevent people from visiting this memorial and the National Mall. The government used veterans as pawns in a political game of chicken instead of using public funds efficiently to let citizens visit the World War II Memorial and National Mall.

The federal government told many of its employees that they were not allowed to work during the shutdown. They did not get paid during the shutdown. After the shutdown ended, we paid $2.5 billion in compensation for days when federal workers were prohibited from working.

During the 2011 Minnesota government shutdown, motorists were prevented from using roadside rest areas. Government employees blocked citizens from entering our statehouse to express their views in person to their elected representatives about the government shutdown or any other issue. Elected officials and their staffers were allowed into our statehouse while the ordinary people of Minnesota were kept out.

These governmental actions designed to hurt people during shutdowns are unnecessary and avoidable.

Rhode Island and Wisconsin show that shutdowns are preventable even during periods of divided government. These states successfully use automatic continuing appropriation laws to prevent shutdowns. Rhode Island has used an anti-shutdown law since 1935. Rhode Island and Wisconsin regularly pass budgets without the threat of a government shutdown.

Our new Minnesota Legislature can learn from past Democratic and Republican continuing-appropriation bills that have been introduced in St. Paul and Washington in recent years.

In 2013, the DFL-controlled House passed former Rep. Phyllis Khan’s (DFL-Minneapolis) bill providing for automatic continuing appropriations for one year if appropriation bills were not passed by the start of the new budget biennium. Khan noted that “Thousands of Minnesotans are hurt by any interruption in government.” She also observed that the “uncertainty of an impending shutdown and the preparations that go with it also make our state less efficient and make it more difficult for state employees to do their jobs effectively.” This good idea died in the conference committee when the DFL-controlled Senate objected to Kahn’s continuing appropriations bill. New Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa) has proposed similar legislation in the past.

At the federal level, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced the End Government Shutdowns Act to have an automatic continuing resolution continue the current level of government spending when appropriation bills are not passed by the start of a new fiscal year. Unlike bills by Rep. Kahn and Sen. Gazelka, this proposed federal legislation would reduce government funding by one percentage point after 120 days without appropriation bills being passed. Funding would be further reduced by one percentage point every 90 days until Congress passed spending bills.

Minnesota will have divided government for the next two years with a DFL governor and Republican Legislature. That combination produced a 20-day government shutdown in 2011. In 2005, a Republican governor and House of Representatives and a DFL Senate produced a nine-day partial government shutdown. This time let’s do better by removing the possibility of another government shutdown.

John A. Spry of St. Paul is an associate professor in the Department of Finance at the University of St. Thomas. He’s on Twitter at @JohnASpry.