ST. PAUL, Minn. - More than 4,600 people made reservations to visit a Minnesota state park over Independence Day last summer, and this year the 74 state parks and recreation areas are expecting as many or more visits — if the parks are open come July 1.
That's the day when Minnesota's government would shut down if Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican state lawmakers fail to get a new, two-year budget in place. Paychecks would stop for tens of thousands of state workers, but many more Minnesotans would not escape pain: closed state parks, mothballed road repair projects, locked highway rest stops, halted processing of everything from new business permits to driver's licenses, and many other consequences.
"It would be an extraordinary embarrassment," Jim Showalter, Dayton's state budget director, said Thursday. "It is something that will impact our bond ratings. It will impact our stature. It is not something to be trifled with."
The legislative session ended earlier this week with Dayton and Republicans still mired in a long standoff over taxes and spending. Dayton met with his cabinet Wednesday and instructed them to start preparing lists of which workers and state functions should be considered essential if government shuts down.
The consequences of a shutdown would be far-reaching. While workers like State Patrol troopers and prison guards are likely to be kept on the job, tens of thousands of state employees deemed nonessential by a court would be temporarily laid off. State worker unions have started counseling their members to save money, avoid large purchases and contact mortgage companies or landlords and credit card companies to warn them that payments might be late.
Ted Boal, a 59-year-old physical therapist at the Minneapolis Veterans Home, doesn't know if he'd be deemed essential. He has two kids who are both getting married this summer, home siding and a driveway that both need to be replaced, and a growing anxiety.
"My wife and I do have some savings, but we're not rich," said the Maple Grove resident.
Dayton is seeking $1.8 billion more in new state revenue for the next two years than Republican leaders have said they are willing to spend. Both Dayton and Republican lawmakers say they don't want a shutdown, and the governor said that he and GOP leaders would meet again at the end of this week or early next for more budget talks.
It's too soon to say how widely felt a government shutdown would be by non-state workers, but it's likely to be more visible than a partial shutdown in 2005. At that time, only a handful of state agency budget bills were unresolved by July 1.
This time, only one agency budget — for the Department of Agriculture — has been signed into law. Bills funding the state courts, constitutional offices like the attorney general and secretary of state, highway programs and maintenance, parole and probation services, pollution control and environmental monitoring and dozens of other state responsibilities remain in limbo.
"It would be of a magnitude that I don't think a lot of people are ready for," said Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Public Employees, the second-largest state worker union. "In terms just of getting a paycheck, we believe somewhere in excess of 33,000 to 35,000 souls will be impacted. That's a huge number, and it's a number that has so many tails on it because the work they do interacts financially with so many private businesses and the nonprofit community."
Perhaps the most immediate consequence noticeable to the most people would be park closings. Amy Barrett, parks and trails information officer at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the July 4 weekend is one of the three busiest of the year in Minnesota parks, the others being Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The state park system earned nearly $1 million in revenue to the state in the first week of July 2010, Barrett said.
The parks don't just operate in a vacuum. Many of the larger ones have inspired businesses to spring up nearby that cater to visitors to the area.
Tom Atwood and his wife own Evergreen Gifts and Fun Park, which is in Park Rapids and about 10 miles south of Itasca State Park, one of the state's most popular.
"It certainly would not help at all," Atwood said of the prospect of the park being closed that weekend. He said they've sunk thousands into improving their establishment's offerings this summer after a tough time last summer thanks to the economy and road construction in the area.
"Now with gas prices we're worried, and if there's a shutdown ..." Atwood trailed off. "It won't help. It won't be good."