How did Minnesota careen off the cliff to a government shutdown?

Looking back, we could have predicted on Jan. 3, 2011 -- the day Gov. Mark Dayton took office -- that we'd face a shutdown "crisis" in June. Dayton is the old-fashioned version of a tax-and-spend liberal. He yearns, with almost religious fervor, to increase government spending and to hike taxes on "the wealthy."

In 2010, he squeaked into office by a mere 9,000 votes, in a political climate that swept fiscally conservative Republicans into power across the nation and in the Minnesota Legislature.

Dayton's election was something of a fluke -- the result of a third-party candidacy lionized by local media, and a lavishly funded ad campaign by public unions that capitalized on his Republican opponent's ancient DWIs.

Today, the majority of Minnesotans still hold fiscally conservative views.

On June 20, a KSTP/USA Survey poll found that 87 percent want state spending to decrease or to stay the same, and only 8 percent want it to increase. Of the 60 percent who want it decreased, two-thirds say cuts to services are "acceptable."

Minnesotans' staunch support for fiscal responsibility has posed a major problem for Dayton. In April, the problem became pressing when the Legislature passed a budget that boosted spending by 6 percent over the past biennium and increased funding for K-12 education and health care.

But the Legislature's budget balanced new spending with projected revenue growth, and so required no new taxes.

Dayton's budget, on the contrary, called for increasing spending by 15 percent. It proposed closing a $1.8 billion gap by raising income taxes on top earners and job creators to essentially the highest rate in the nation, though earners at all levels would feel the impact.

Dayton -- and the DFL legislators who support his plan -- needed a dramatic way to persuade fiscally conservative Minnesotans to support their big-spending ways.

A government shutdown could do the trick, if it were broad-based and painful enough, and if the public could be convinced that Republican legislators had refused to compromise and so were to blame.

Dayton could count on Alliance for a Better Minnesota -- a 501(c)(4) organization funded by public unions and über-wealthy Dayton family members -- to saturate the airwaves with ads pushing a grossly distorted version of the budgetary facts.

Within hours after the session ended, ABM announced it would spend up to $1 million on such a campaign.

Did Dayton intentionally try to provoke a shutdown? We can only say that if he had wanted to, he would have acted precisely as he has in recent months.

Throughout the budgetary process, Dayton refused to give legislators the details they needed to take his priorities into account in crafting their own budget bills. He refused to negotiate on individual bills until he had seen them all.

The Legislature sent its bills to Dayton six weeks before the session ended, but he frittered away the time for negotiation. He vetoed all nine bills at the end of the session, so legislators had no chance to rework them to address his concerns.

As shutdown loomed, Dayton refused to resolve small differences and sign major portions of the budget, such as K-12 education, judiciary and public safety, on which agreement was close. The Pioneer Press called this "hostage taking," not "compromise."

But Minnesotans need to understand the bigger picture here. Behind Dayton and out of the limelight, DFL legislators have been playing for much higher stakes than a $1.8 billion spending increase.

In recent weeks, DFL minority leaders Paul Thissen and Tom Bakk have been glued to Dayton's side throughout budget negotiations. Why? If Dayton -- with the help of DFL legislators -- could parlay a shutdown into a DFL legislative takeover in 2012, the political payoff for the party would be huge.

Dayton won't face reelection until 2014, and the public's memory of the current fiscal train wreck will be long gone by then.

But the Legislature is up for reelection in 2012 -- just around the corner. If Dayton gets egg on his face for the shutdown, DFL leaders may view it as a small price to pay, so long as irate voters can be led to spread the blame to Republicans and to transfer legislative control to the DFL next year.

Imagine DFLers' jubilation if their party gained control of the Minnesota House and Senate in 2012. With two years left in Dayton's term, they could undo all of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's accomplishments, and those of the current Republican Legislature to boot.

The DFL would enjoy a free rein as it sought to transport Minnesota to a left-wing nirvana.

Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own.