Minn. governor, lawmakers to meet as government shutdown drags on, judge weighs money demands

  • Article by: PATRICK CONDON and MARTIGA LOHN , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 7, 2011 - 6:42 AM

ST. PAUL, Minn. - The small police department in the central Minnesota town of Hutchinson has seen three patrol officers leave in recent weeks, but the chief can't hire replacements because of the state government shutdown.

The possibility of a long closure is raising the stakes for people and groups across Minnesota that rely on state money or programs, even those tangentially affected like Hutchinson police. New hires need a state license, but that office is closed, so specialized investigators are being pulled to work patrol shifts, said Chief Daniel Hatten.

"It's not just a fatigue factor," Hatten told a former state Supreme Court justice who is weighing requests from people and groups that want the tap turned back on. "It's the ability to deliver the protection at a level not only that the community expects, but also from a basic safety perspective."

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders plan to meet again Wednesday to try to settle the dispute over taxes and spending that led to the shutdown. They reported no progress after talking for about an hour Tuesday, their first meeting since the government closed Friday.

The shutdown resulted from a budget impasse over how to erase a $5 billion deficit. Dayton wants to raise income taxes on the state's wealthiest residents to provide more money for social services and public education. Republican lawmakers oppose any tax increase.

Meanwhile, organizations and residents who depend on state funds have been pleading their cases to former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz. A state district judge has ordered that programs essential to life, health and public safety continue during the shutdown, and Blatz was appointed to make recommendations on which programs qualify.

She heard pleas for a second full day Tuesday from a wide array of interests, from law enforcement and advocates for sexual assault victims and the homeless to child care workers and hospital officials.

Local police departments aren't funded by the state, but new hires can't join forces until they get a license from the Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training — which was closed by the shutdown.

Hatten, supported by the League of Minnesota Cities, asked Blatz to reinstate funding for the board.

A similar bureaucratic hang-up has afflicted The Emily Program, a private St. Paul-based treatment program for people with serious eating disorders. The agency planned to open a second in-patient facility this month, but a July 18 inspection by the Department of Human Services' licensing division was called off because that office, too, is closed.

"Without that last step in the licensing process, the program will be unable to open," said Jillian Lampert, director of licensing for The Emily Program. She said the new, 10-bed facility already has a waiting list of 21 patients.

Until a budget deal materializes, state spending decisions fall first to Blatz, who stepped down as the state's chief justice in 2006. Blatz repeatedly reminded those before her that she has limited power.

"It's not a comment on the value of your services. It goes to the limits of the court's power," she said, trying to downplay the expectations of two representatives from the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, a treatment and counseling center that holds a number state contracts to provide social services.

The center focuses on "prevention and advocacy," which Blatz suggested wasn't essential to the public's health and safety. With no "disruption," she said, "we're limited until they figure things out across the street."

Ben Peltier, legal counsel for the Minnesota Hospital Association, said hiring at its 45 member hospitals has halted because state background checks required by law aren't available. Large hospitals could probably shuffle existing staff for a few weeks, but some 65 smaller hospitals that typically treat 25 or fewer patients could end up short-staffed, Peltier said.

Blatz did not schedule a hearing for Wednesday, but she plans to be back at it Thursday.

Dayton's legal team asked Blatz on Tuesday to expand the list of critical services and recommend that funding be continued for special education, mental health and chemical dependency programs, child care assistance and other services to the vulnerable.

Tuesday's brief negotiating session between the governor and lawmakers ended with both sides covering familiar ground. Republicans said they again asked Dayton to call a special session so they could pass a lights-on bill to restart state government while negotiations continue. Dayton has consistently refused.

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