Two weeks in, legislators discuss costs of a shutdown

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 13, 2011 - 9:04 PM

Republican-led committee held shutdown hearing, but a DFLer said "defeatist" attitude won't fix budget.

Jim Abeler: “We’ve got a ton of work to do and I want people to know what the stakes are.”

The legislative session took a rancorous turn Thursday when House Republicans held a hearing about the steps needed for a government shutdown.

DFLers criticized the approach as "alarming," saying Republicans seem to have their minds set on a paralyzing budget deadlock with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

"This kind of defeatist attitude is not the approach we need to solve our budget deficit, grow our economy and support Minnesota families and small businesses," said state Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.

The legislative session has quietly sputtered along for nearly two weeks, but the government shutdown hearing before the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee gave the first whiff of what could be a grinding battle to beat down the state's $6.2 billion deficit.

At the same time, DFLers and Republicans reached deep into their usual tool sheds to offer tried-and-true plans to solve the state's ills that also may gum up budget negotiations.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, former chair of the capital investments committee before DFLers lost the majority, introduced a $1 billion borrowing package that includes a buffet of projects rejected by Republican former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

At the same time, Republicans rolled out their bill to trim the state workforce by 15 percent and freeze state wages. The proposals are the latest ideas from the smaller-government, business-friendly campaign themes that sent Republican candidates to St. Paul in droves and allowed them to win control over both chambers for the first time in 40 years.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, the human services committee chairman, said he scheduled the 20-minute shutdown primer as a pointed reminder to members of the enormous challenges ahead.

"We've got a ton of work to do, and ... I want people to know what the stakes are," said Abeler.

He said the hearing was not political theater or "a surrender to the inevitable." Rather, he said, "If you know how bad the outcome might be, you don't want to go there."

The state's only government shutdown came in July 2005, when Pawlenty reached a budget impasse with DFLers in the Legislature.

State leaders had lurched toward a government shutdown many times before, but it was the first time last-minute negotiations failed to break the stalemate. A judge had ordered Minnesota to protect essential services relating to health, safety and property. Those protected included state law enforcement, nursing homes and food inspections.

In the end, portions of state government shut down for eight days, leaving 9,000 state employees out of work.

At the time, Pawlenty said DFLers wanted a government shutdown to embarrass him as he considered whether to run for reelection. Now out of office and considering a bid for president, Pawlenty has said he should have let the shutdown drag on longer to win more concessions.

The state nearly shut down in 2001.

Contractors then were told they would have to shut down construction sites and transportation officials began making signs to announce the closure of rest areas and state parks, said Judy Plante, an assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Office of Management and Budget.

The political brinkmanship had a real cost for taxpayers. In 2001, the state spent $2.7 million preparing for a shutdown, Plante told the committee. She didn't know how much the shutdown cost in 2005.

Another cost for lawmakers to consider in a shutdown scenario: If it stretched out to the point where state workers were laid off, the state could get socked with millions of dollars in severance packages.

"So there's a huge price to pay," Plante said.

All the shutdown talk might be a little premature. The five-month session is barely under way and Dayton won't even release his proposed budget until Feb. 15. Republicans will start working on their counterproposal in March.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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