Minnesota Shutdown, Wisconsin Recalls Show States Mirror Washington Split
Minnesota’s government is in its third week of a shutdown. In Wisconsin, vacations have been interrupted by nine recall elections. California lawmakers approved a budget with only Democratic votes and Montana’s Democratic governor vetoed 79 bills from the Republican- dominated Legislature.
As Congress and the White House are again in showdown mode, deadlocked over a measure to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, state capitols are becoming more confrontational and adopting the partisan traits of political Washington, according to some governors at the National Governors Association conference in Salt Lake City that ended yesterday.
The tensions complicated efforts to close combined 2012 deficits estimated by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities at $103 billion as states navigated the fourth consecutive year of budget-cutting.
“It’s ironic that governors tend to demonize Washington even as they practice some of the same arts at home,” Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, said in a telephone interview yesterday.
While some Democratic and Republican governors at the three-day meeting condemned the debt-limit gridlock in Washington, the effects of political polarization fester in several states.
The Minnesota shutdown, which began July 1, was caused by a standoff between Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, who sought a tax increase, and the Republican-controlled Legislature, which opposed it. The impasse halted state construction projects, closed parks and agencies and idled 23,000 employees.
Dayton and legislative leaders plan a special session as early as today to approve a deal and end the shutdown, according to the Associated Press.
An unprecedented number of recall elections, to remove elected officials from office, are slated in Wisconsin after Republican Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-led Legislature enacted curbs on collective bargaining for most state government employees.
The economic downturn has forced almost every state to make deep spending cuts to balance its budget. Some, like Illinois, have raised taxes, although with no Republican votes. Recall efforts have begun in Michigan in protest of education cuts approved by the Republican Legislature and Republican Governor Rick Snyder.
‘The Same Rhetoric’
“I listen to some of the clips today about the rhetoric in Washington and I hear the same rhetoric in North Carolina,” Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue said at a news conference July 14. “It’s almost a playbook about the next election.”
Perdue last month vetoed a $19.7 billion budget approved by the Republican-led Legislature that cut agencies and scaled back environmental controls, while letting a temporary one-cent sales tax expire along with some income taxes on high earners. Lawmakers overrode the veto on party lines.
In California, Governor Jerry Brown sought to cover part of a $26 billion deficit by extending expiring taxes and fees. He needed the votes of four Republican lawmakers to put the issue to a statewide vote and began to woo the legislators in January. Talks went into June as Republicans used their power to block his tax plan to jockey for cuts to public pensions and to environmental and business regulations. Ultimately, Brown dropped the revenue effort and the state budget was passed only with the votes of Democrats.
Not all the conflicts are partisan. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, called a special session of the Legislature, which is controlled by members of her own party, to change state law allowing extended unemployment benefits paid by the federal government. Lawmakers refused on philosophical grounds, immediately stopping assistance to 15,000 people and costing the economy almost $3.5 million a week.
There’s a time to “stand your ground,” Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, said in an interview, “but I also think you should find common ground.”
“I don’t think it’s helpful when you have standoffs and shutdowns of the government, whether it’s at the state level or the federal level, because we’re dealing with issues that affect the American people,” said Fallin, a former representative in Congress.
Determining where and when to take that stand is the challenge. Most states, including New York, approved budgets without disruption. Still, the level of conflict has escalated around the country, said Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat. The battles have become fight-to-the-finish struggles.
‘Lack of Civility’
“We’re all concerned with the lack of civility,” Nixon said in an interview.
“We all know that our states and our country are more complex than what a donkey or an elephant might say on a particular issue,” he said, referring to the symbols for the major political parties.
The current political climate has sharpened partisan divisions on taxes and spending and discouraged bipartisanship, Nixon said. “It’s not a sign of strength to join with others and make incremental gains,” Nixon said.
Jacobs, the Minnesota professor, said partisanship at the state level has grown because many moderates in both political parties have been “chased out” and bipartisan consensus is discouraged.
“It’s the same story we’re seeing in Washington, and it’s playing out in all these states,” Jacobs said.
Wisconsin is at political war. Both parties and their traditional support groups have pledged to spend millions of dollars on the August recall elections because control of the state Senate is at stake. Walker, whose approval rating dropped to 37 percent in a University of Wisconsin Badger Poll released July 13, faces the prospect of a separate recall next year.
“In the end, what calms things down is results,” Walker said in an interview, adding he believes the changes he pushed in Wisconsin will be accepted by taxpayers.
Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent who was previously a Republican U.S. senator, said he expects divisions at the state level “to get worse.”
In fact, governors at their national meeting decided not to issue what was to be a bipartisan letter urging Congress and the White House to settle their differences on the debt ceiling.
“Everybody agreed, absolutely bipartisan, Republicans and Democrats” that the debt ceiling needs to be raised, said Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat who chaired the governors’ meeting. The letter didn’t materialize, she said, because the governors needed time to reach consensus on a larger plan for taxes and spending cuts, and felt their message had already gotten out through the media.
“I think the point is every governor that I know of thinks it is important to raise the debt ceiling,” said Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “But there are very significant differences among governors” on how to get there, he said.
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