Government shuts down
By Don Davis
State Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans woke up to fog along Lake Superior and sweltering heat in the south. Many headed out for a four-day holiday weekend while others just headed to work.
But more than 20,000 state workers are off the job, laid off by the state's worst-ever government shutdown, and many headed to apply for unemployment insurance.
On the first day of Minnesota's shutdown, there was no hint that budget negotiations could resume any time soon. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature at some point need to meet to restart budget discussions that ended late Thursday with some of the strongest political rhetoric in a year that has featured more than its share.
But while budget negotiators decide on their next step, Minnesotans are dealing with the consequences.
Among those consequences are road and bridge construction projects that are delayed. Replacing the U.S. 61 bridge at Hastings is an example.
With the state shutdown putting the Minnesota Department of Transportation on hold indefinitely, all work on state projects has come to a stop.
The setback is nothing new to the Hastings project. High water late last fall slowed down work, but crews were able to catch up. The bigger problem came this spring with significant flooding and then an extended period of high water. Crews were just preparing to get back in the river, but the shutdown foiled those plans. It is unclear how the shutdown will affect the long-term project schedule.
The bridge is slated for completion by May 31, 2013. It received low safety scores and is one of the state's top priorities for replacement.
Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, expressed disappointment in an e-mail to his constituents about Thursday night's events.
"I am extremely disappointed Gov. Dayton chose not to call a special session this evening so the Legislature could pass a 10-day temporary funding bill," he wrote. "This temporary bill would have continued state government funding at rates established during our last budget cycle.
"The legislature could have also approve funding for the areas of government where we agreed on a total dollar amount with Gov. Dayton, which I also found discouraging. That would have kept MnDOT road construction jobs like our Hastings bridge project going. State parks and the Minnesota Zoo could have stayed open for this busy Fourth of July weekend."
Republicans practically begged Dayton to call the Legislature back into special session, something only the governor can do, so lawmakers could pass a temporary budget while details of a full budget were worked out. But late Thursday Dayton repeated that he would not call lawmakers back to work until a complete budget agreement was in place.
The shutdown began because Dayton and the GOP could not bridge what ended up being a $1.4 billion gap. Without a budget, most state programs have no authority to spend money.
Republicans said they would spend no more than $34 billion for the two years beginning today, while Dayton originally wanted to spend $37 billion.
Dayton originally wanted more than $3 billion in tax increases. By the time negotiations broke down, Dayton had lowered his tax plan to only affecting Minnesotans earning more than $1 million a year, he said, to bring in $1.4 billion.
Disagreement went much deeper than just the total spending figure and whether taxes should be raised. The two sides disagreed on many policy items embedded in budget bills, and left unsolved spending issues within bills.
The Legislature is funded into July and a court ruling allowed the judicial branch to keep operating.
While much of state government was shut down, Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin of Ramsey County District Court this week ruled that a third of state employees should remain on the job providing essential functions such as offered by the State Patrol, prison guards and state and federally subsidized health care services.
Organizations from the Minnesota Zoo to cities this morning began asking former Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz to recommend they continue to receive funding even without a state budget. Gearin has the final say.
Groups lined up to plead their case to Blatz in 20-minute increments today and Tuesday.
In the meantime, the Revenue Department said it will continue to process tax payments and Minnesotans must meet their tax-return deadlines. Also, payments due to local governments this month will be paid.
But while tax deadlines remain in place, the Revenue Department has no one to answer Minnesotans' questions.
Chad Richardson of the Hastings Star Gazette contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.