One by one, the procession began Friday.
On the first day of Minnesota's state government shutdown, nearly two dozen social service providers lined up and argued that they supply critical services and should keep getting state money. After more than nine hours of hearings -- with more to come next week -- the line included representatives for everything from battered women's shelters and chemical treatment centers to the Minnesota AIDS Project and the Minnesota School Board Association.
All took their seats before Kathleen Blatz, a former state Supreme Court chief justice appointed as a special master to hear the pleadings. Blatz promised to have her first recommendations as early as Sunday.
In some instances, she said she had heard enough. "I thought they made a strong argument here today that they were" a critical state service, Blatz said after Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services made its case.
But many providers will have to wait until she hears more from Attorney General Lori Swanson and David Lillehaug, an attorney for Gov. Mark Dayton. Swanson and Lillehaug clashed at times Friday over what services should be viewed as essential. Swanson and Lillehaug also argued on occasion over how much legal elbow room Blatz had been given by a judge to define core services.
Although Friday's testimony mainly involved attorneys and program administrators, people in wheelchairs, blind people, refugees from Burma and others appeared before Blatz.
"I don't mean to scare you," said Julie Tate of Minneapolis, who sat before Blatz in a wheelchair and lobbied for state funding for Vail Place, a community-based mental health program serving 1,700 adults in Hennepin County. "[But I] feel suicidal most of the time."
After Tate and officials from Vail Place spoke, Maureen O'Connell, assistant commissioner for chemical and mental health services at the Department of Human Services, went to them. "I want to assure you we think your services are very, very important," she said.
Swanson said she expects the list of petitioners to be substantially larger than the roughly 50 that came forward during the less expansive 2005 state government shutdown. "It's unprecedented. Minnesota's never had a full shutdown," she said.
Blatz agreed. "I think this is extraordinary times," she added.
But Blatz said that while all of the agencies appearing before her provide important services, not all provide core services that must have funding continued.
Liz Richards, director of programming for the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, made an emotional plea. "We are here today because this morning, at least three emergency shelters for battered women and their children have suspended services," she said.
Long after Richards left, Blatz, Lillehaug and Swanson huddled informally to discuss the petition. The verdict: They needed more time to study it.
Zoo makes plea
Lillehaug and former Attorney General Mike Hatch made opposing arguments to Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin about whether the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley should get funding that lets it reopen.
Arguing to do so, Hatch noted that 75 percent of zoo funding comes from admissions, concessions, concerts, rental fees and donations. Hatch said the zoo wants authority to tap the 75 percent. Lillehaug, representing the governor, said the zoo, where 90 zookeepers are still caring for animals, isn't a core function and shouldn't be opened to the public.
Gearin may rule Saturday.
Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673