Judge orders most services to go dark

Talks continued at Capitol, but Kathleen Gearin's ruling hewed to a narrow definition of what the state can keep open.

Minnesota would face a massive government shutdown under a court ruling released Wednesday, with all but critical services stopping by Friday.

Schools and many health care services would continue under Ramsey County District Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin's order, because closing them would violate basic constitutional rights or jeopardize lives. Prison guards also would remain on the job, as would state troopers.

But services to the deaf, child care assistance to low-income parents, help lines for seniors, state parks at the height of summer, the Minnesota Zoo and a multitude of projects on state roads and highways would all grind to a halt, along with a host of other services. And tens of thousands of state employees would join the ranks of the unemployed as of Friday.

The prospect of so much of the state government going dark wasn't sufficient to provoke a budget agreement Wednesday between Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders. At 9:30 p.m. another round of talks concluded with the two sides going their separate ways and no schedule set for further talks.

"We do not have a deal,'' said Geoff Michel, R-Edina, the deputy Senate majority leader.

Michel said Senate Republicans will come to the Capitol today in hopes the governor will call them into special session on the budget. Dayton, who earlier this week called Wednesday "the day where we have to make our final breakthroughs,'' has said he will not call a special session until an agreement is in place on a complete budget deal.

Public dissatisfaction with the impasse is mounting.

"We are under a lot of pressure from people telling us to get it done," said state Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea. "I am feeling the pressure from both sides."

The liberal group Take Action Minnesota on Wednesday said it had the names of 5,600 Minnesotans who want Republicans to accept Dayton's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy. The Minnesota Free Market Institute urged followers to send a form letter that started: "Governor Dayton, With all due respect, I am shocked at your rigid and stubborn stance. ..."

Meanwhile, lobbyists marched through the Capitol to drum up support for causes ranging from lowering income taxes to hiking cigarette taxes. Rank-and-file legislators and staffers saw their work and home phones light up with sometimes angry, expletive-laced calls urging them to stand firm or strike a deal.

Dayton and Republican legislators have been frozen in a tense stalemate over how to wipe out the state's $5 billion projected deficit. Republicans want to balance the budget through deep cuts, while Dayton prefers his plan to combine cuts with an increase in income taxes on the state's wealthiest 2 percent.

'A heavy heart'

In her ruling, Gearin largely affirmed Dayton's original shutdown plan but, unlike his approach, ordered that K-12 schools continue to be funded. Dayton's plan calls for a "hard" shutdown that would pare most agencies back to skeletal staffs and continue only the most vital services.

"I arrived at that list with a heavy heart, knowing full well the important role that government plays in the everyday success of Minnesota's citizens and businesses," Dayton said in a statement. Gearin wrote that she had no authority to order funding beyond the basics and rejected numerous requests from agencies seeking state money.

So the Minnesota Zoo would be able to feed and care for its animals but would be closed to the public. The state's two horse racing tracks, which require a handful of state race officials on hand, would close. Nursing homes and veterans homes would stay open. State aid to cities and counties would continue.

"There is no doubt that cities dodged a major bullet this morning that may have crippled communities," said Park Rapids Mayor Nancy Carroll, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

Medical and nursing home care would continue for thousands of aged, disabled or poor people on Medicaid, called Medical Assistance in Minnesota. So would food stamps and cash payments to the poor. But child-care assistance would be suspended, creating chaos for private day care centers that might have to close because they depend on subsidies for some of their children.

The closure of Canterbury Park racetrack at the height of the season has thrown horse racing into disarray, with jockeys, trainers and owners scrambling to make adjustments.

Jockey agent Jesse Lomeli, who has come to Canterbury since it opened in 1985, drives thousands of miles from his home in Guadalajara, Mexico, to represent riders at the track.

"The thing that makes me sad is the government is getting in the middle of our business,'' said Lomeli, who will return to Mexico if the track closes. "They're keeping us from working and making a living. We're just trying to make a go of it, and they're putting the brakes on us.''

Barbara Schifano, an advocate for individuals with disabilities at a north Minneapolis workforce development center, lamented what the shutdown might mean to those she represents. "In one day, my role as an advocate for the voiceless, the hungry and the marginalized will come to a halt," she said. "I will not be able to offer community resources, act as a liaison for those that lack negotiating skills, offer support and guidance for those struggling with mental health issues who feel helpless on a day to day basis."

Dayton's closure outline and Gearin's ruling won't be the last word. Gearin on Wednesday appointed retired Supreme Court Justice Kathleen Blatz to serve as a "special master" to settle shutdown disputes.

Shutdown blues

The first signs of a shutdown become visible at the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, when workers began installing concrete barriers around the building in preparation for scaled-back security. Meanwhile, union leaders prepared for a series of rallies and events during the final hours the state is operating, culminating with a candlelight vigil Thursday night.

As talks continued, legislators and the governor offered few hints of a breakthrough.

"We're working" is all Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, would say during a brief break.

"I am continuing to work toward a compromise needed to move forward," Dayton said.

Not everyone is waiting for a deal.

Canterbury Park will seek an injunction in Scott County District Court Thursday. If nothing changes, the track will run its last races Thursday night and furlough roughly 1,000 workers.

The card club and horse racing will stop at midnight, said track spokesman Jeff Maday.

But for those with a midnight case of the shutdown blues, Maday added, "We'd leave the bar open till 1 a.m."

Staff writers Eric Roper, Bob von Sternberg, Rachel Blount and Warren Wolfe contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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