Spoiled Children and Budget Negotiation

For six days now I’ve been trying to figure out something (useful, relevant, tactless) to say about the State of Minnesota Shutdown.  For those outside the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the Minnesota Legislature and Governor failed to reach a budget agreement by the beginning of the new fiscal year, 1 July.  Due to a little quirk in the State Constitution that money must be appropriated before being spent, the State of Minnesota hung out the “Gone Fishing” sign Friday and closed the doors.

Well, not exactly, but that’s the jist of it.  The result is 22,000 State employees out of work closing state parks, shutting down road construction projects, and personally, it’s put about half of my work contracts on hiatus.  Minnesotans elected a divided government last November, with Democrat Mark Dayton taking a three-way race for governor and a majority of Republicans winning the State House and Senate.  We want our government to work, but with checks and balances.  Unfortunately, the government can’t write a check large enough to cover the balance of spending.  The State budget deficits are not sustainable.  Hard decisions are on the table.

We know that.  We just can’t agree on what the important decisions are, and how to balance the checkbook to pay for them.

I have my own highly-partisan opinion of the situation and who is to blame (Governor Dayton, cough, cough).  However, the entire debacle is more indicative, to me, of our failure to set the parameters for success.

The media harps on “Compromise! Compromise! Compromise!”  As I recall from history books, that’s what they told Chamberlain.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the Appeasers compromise the bricks right into the pavement.

At the University of Illinois, I took an excellent class on negotiation.  The prof was an adjunct—a full-time lawyer from Chicago who flew down to Champaign once a week to coach a class full of future planners.  He mixed real-life with theory and a good dose of practical “get the job done.”  Our primary text came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  Fisher and Ury’s book Getting to Yes, has been my bible ever since in dealing with difficult situations.

One lesson I’ve retained from that class is when meeting in the middle of the road (compromise) isn’t getting you any where in principled negotiation, it may be because the sides aren’t even on the same road.  Threatening Solomon’s Justice to split the baby doesn’t work when the two sides can’t even agree which baby is in question.  It seems to me that certain leaders in St. Paul (as in Washington, DC) are acting like spoiled children, threatening to take their  ball and go home if they don’t get their way.

I don’t have the answer to get them to play nice when they can’t even agree if they are playing baseball or soccer.  I do know Compromise is only going to kick the budget deficit ball further on down the road.


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