State workers expect gov’t shutdown

Published 5:15 pm Saturday, June 11, 2011


Austin’s Shelley King was one of about 42,000 state workers to open their mail to a layoff notice since Friday.

With the state gridlocked and a shutdown looming, the notice came as little surprise, but it’s still a source of concern.

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“I’m very anxious,” said King, a researcher for the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

The state last shutdown for about two weeks in 2005, and King noted other shutdowns have been resolved quickly. But King said it’s hard to put a positive spin on the situation with the GOP-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton so polarized.

“I’m somewhat optimistic,” King said. “At the same time, I don’t think it’s ever been this bad before.”

The split at the Capitol — on top of an already strained economy — has caused many state workers to expect a lengthy shutdown.

“I think the mood was so different then,” King said of the 2005 shutdown.

“Everyone’s more cautious and certainly less optimistic,” she added.

With the state no closer to a budget compromise, state workers are beginning to plan for the worst — a shutdown beginning July 1.

Some state employees will be considered essential services and will continue working. King said she most likely won’t be considered essential and would be laid off.

Ashley Schultz, a local parole and probation agent with the DOC, said corrections should be seen as a core service and, therefore, continue operating.

“I think the probation and parole end of it is a definite necessity,” Schultz said. “We can’t afford to go without it.”

Schultz, who works with sex offenders, said the majority of DOC clients would be OK without supervision, but a small minority need continued contact with probation agents. Schultz said cutting that service would be a definite public safety concern.

“There’s offenders out there who need this structure,” Schultz said.

“It’s a definite concern,” Schultz added.

Critical services?

Though many throughout the state have already received layoff notices, some hadn’t as of Friday. Department of Natural Resource employees, who were expecting notices, realized they would likely receive notices on Saturday.

“I think everyone is very hopeful we will have a settlement, and that will be that,” said Jeanine Vorland, DNR area wildlife manager, who didn’t see a notice on Friday.

Like other agencies, the DNR outlined its priority-one services (those considered necessary in event of public health or safety) and its priority-two services (those that can be disrupted temporarily, but must continue within a few days). Though the proposal is complete and has been submitted to the governor, DNR officials aren’t allowed to comment on what was in the document, according to Chris Niskanen, DNR communications director.

“We don’t know what will be deemed priority-one or priority-two,” Niskanen said. “It would just be pure speculation.”

Officials could neither speculate whether certain divisions, like parks and trails would remain open, as state parks draw a significant amount of revenue to the state. DNR employees now wait until a judge decides whether their job will be deemed “critical.”

Good-bye benefits?

State employees also have personal concerns regarding the shutdown. If the government shuts down, many state workers would be without insurance. Schultz was concerned about losing benefits — a fear shared by many other state workers.

“We’ve all got families,” Schultz said.

While King said she has most of her insurance through her husband, she would lose her state dental insurance. She said insurance is a major concern for workers with young children.

According to King, many state workers are already planning their finances in case of a shut down. Many have canceled vacations and other plans.

King noted her supervisors have tried to keep employees informed and prepared, but they’re also in the dark.

“They don’t know a whole lot more than we do,” she said.

An uncertain road

Some are concerned the shutdown could affect road projects with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, though Communications Director Kevin Gutknecht said his office is not speculating on potential effects.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

During the 2005 shutdown, road projects continued operating, but that hasn’t eased worries.

“Obviously there’s concern and people are wondering what the future holds,” he said.

Basic care

On the county level, a key concern is reimbursements. In Human Services, a large amount of the funding comes from the state. If there’s a shutdown, those payments would be delayed, and some officials fear they wouldn’t be reinstated later.

“Were concerned,” Oscarson said. “We’re hoping that they don’t get to that point.”

Mower County Human Services is likely to see some serious effects. Much of the Human Services budget is mandated by the state. Director Julie Stevermer said her department will have to prioritize services, something the department has been doing for years.

“We have been operating lean as it is,” Stevermer said. “Will there be some disruption? Possibly. We won’t know what to expect until those guidelines come out.”

Stevermer anticipates many of Human Services’ key roles will be kept operating, like child protection, protection for vulnerable adults and financial assistance programs.

“My expectation is that those will keep running,” she said.

“We’re talking about basic level of care: food, shelter, clothing and medical care,” she added.

Preparing for everything

City Administrator Jim Hurm said he isn’t worrying too much about a government shutdown at this point. Since the city has budgeted in a way that allows for some cuts to Local Government Aid, local government would not immediately be affected by a shutdown.

“You have to prepare for everything,” he said. “But there’s no indication we have to prepare for them dumping LGA.”

The city is scheduled to receive approximately $3 million in LGA in mid-July, Hurm said. If the state government shuts down and hasn’t reached a budget agreement by that time, Austin won’t receive its LGA until a deal is finalized. However, the city will not go broke if the July payment is delayed.

“Obviously it’s a major chunk of revenue that we anticipate coming in, and if it doesn’t come in it’s not the end of the world,” Hurm said. “But if it doesn’t come in at all that’s a little different story. We’re as well-planned as we can be expected to be given the circumstances.”

Even if the July payment doesn’t arrive on time, Hurm said he’s hopeful the LGA will make its way to Austin eventually.

“The state does have an arrangement with us called the Minnesota Miracle, and they’ll eventually have to get us the LGA. It’ll come eventually,” he said. “I’m not certain of anything, but I’m hopeful.”