State shutdown would be a leap into unknown

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 12, 2011 - 8:48 AM

No one knows what state services would be 'essential.'

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Tettegouche State Park on the North Shore would be shut down.

Photo: Amy Funk, Associated Press - Ap

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Minnesota's state parks: Closed.

The state lottery? Frozen.

Minnesota's most violent prisoners? Held back by a skeleton crew.

Taxes? Not so fast. Minnesotans would still be paying those.

In 19 days, Minnesotans could endure the most wide-reaching government shutdown in state history, with little sense of when it might end.

Across the vast enterprise of state government, agency heads are scrambling to come up with closure plans. State leaders have no real playbook for blinking off such an enormous government machine, so they must wade into an array of wrenching decisions and legal scuffles, knowing they risk turning Minnesota into a national spectacle of partisan gridlock.

"We the citizens will lose immeasurably," said former Gov. Arne Carlson, adding that Minnesota could become a test case for a wave of shutdowns in politically deadlocked states. "It raises serious questions about where America is going and where Minnesota is going."

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's administration has rushed to piece together a shutdown plan largely in secret, even as he slogs through inch-by-inch budget negotiations with Republicans to avert closure. Dayton's top staffers are cobbling together memos from agency heads who must decide which workers are essential -- and will continue to be paid -- and which are not. These proposals serve as building blocks for Dayton's shutdown plan, which ultimately will be presented to a judge to sort out sometime in the next week or two.

Dayton's administration has refused to release many details, in part because final decisions will be made not by them but by a court.

"I would love to be able to tell people all of the details right now," said Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter, who leads shutdown preparations. "At this moment, I can't."

A state on the brink

Dayton faces an extraordinary dilemma.

The new governor must weigh his desire to get what he wants politically against the pressures of paycheck-to-paycheck state workers who face temporary unemployment and who were a driving force behind his successful campaign.

An expansive shutdown would apply maximum public pressure on Republicans to agree on a budget deal. Or Dayton could argue that most services are essential, which would minimize disruptions, but also give Republicans less incentive to cut a deal.

So far, Dayton has been silent on strategy. "We are still in the process of developing what we believe the law requires," he said.

Dayton and Republican legislators have been deadlocked since January over how to wipe out a projected $5 billion deficit. Republicans have firmly rejected Dayton's plan to raise taxes on high earners, but the governor has been equally hard-nosed in opposing their proposed budget cuts.

The two sides could continue their political tug-of-war as Minnesotans watch the lights go out on many of their most cherished amenities, or at least see them slip into question.

State parks, health and human services, and nearly every corner of government could feel the suffocating grip of shutdown. All told, about $2.1 billion in payments are in peril in July, including state salaries and some funding for schools and local governments.

Layoff notices already have gone out to 36,000 employees. The state has imposed a hard hiring freeze and on Friday the Department of Transportation notified its contractors and vendors that they should be prepared to "suspend all work activity" on July 1, including on federally funded contracts. "It is likely that no staff will be available," the memo said.

Even a potential shutdown "has tentacles that reach everywhere," said Jim Miller, executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities.

Organizations that rely on state funding are racing to plug the possible holes.

Twin Cities nursing homes, some of which have minimal reserves, are setting up lines of credit with their banks to avoid evicting residents.

"We can't put somebody out without 30 days notice, and we've told our members don't give those notices, no matter what," said Patti Cullen, CEO of the trade association Care Providers of Minnesota. "There would be no place to send them except home, with a son or daughter, or off to the hospital."

That still leaves a hellish list of questions.

"Will [the state] pay for home health aides, for personal care attendants? Will there be somebody still working at the state to make sure payments are made on time?" asked Steve Larson, public policy director for ARC of Minnesota, which works primarily with developmental disability programs. "We have to plan based on guesswork, and that makes everybody very nervous."

A 'very dangerous' mindset

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said he does not know which state health employees would be kept on in the event of a dangerous epidemic. He points to the deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany as a ghoulish example of the need to be prepared.

"Infectious diseases don't wait for the budget to get settled," Osterholm said. "It's like letting all of the fireman go, but then telling them we only want them if there is a fire. The mindset is very dangerous."

K-12 schools are fretting about crimped state aid payments, teachers' licenses that can't be renewed, and even whether they'll have the money to open schools in September if a shutdown drags on.

"It could be hugely problematic," said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

Officials at the Minnesota State College and University system say that they have some tuition money and rainy-day funds socked away, but aren't sure they would have authority to tap it.

Richard Davenport, president of Minnesota State University Mankato, said students are worried that their financial aid paperwork won't be processed by the fall semester, and will be under pressure to consider other schools. "They will probably not come back across that border," he said. "That has serious implications."

Metro Transit buses and Hiawatha light-rail trains continued running during a 2005 shutdown, but no one knows whether they'd be declared essential this time.

"We can borrow from ... reserves for probably a month or two," said Susan Haigh, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Council, which oversees local transit services.

State corrections officials plan to keep tabs on prisoners and offenders "with minimum staffing levels," said John Schadl, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

Meanwhile, the state's 40,000 workers watch the days tick away while they worry about lost paychecks and whether they'll be able to maintain their health insurance, which could run roughly $1,500 a month.

"We're still hoping they [leaders] can come to some agreement," said Beth Kleinboehl, an administrator for Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester. "They're still meeting, so that has to be considered progress."

Star Tribune staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger, Pat Doyle, Warren Wolfe, Paul McEnroe, Alejandra Matos, Kelly Smith and Bob von Sternberg contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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