Shutdown: Down for the count

Published 11:54 am Friday, July 1, 2011

The rest area on Interstate 90 near Hayward was closed by 4 p.m. Thursday in anticipation of a state government shutdown. -- Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

Without a budget deal, state shuts down

With Minnesota’s state government closed for business, local legislators say they feel frustrated but are determined to reach a solution.

The shutdown started at 12:01 a.m. Friday, the result of an ongoing dispute about taxes and spending between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative majorities. Talks fell apart well before the deadline, leaving state parks closed on the brink of the Fourth of July weekend, putting road projects at a standstill and forcing thousands of state worker layoffs.

“I can’t believe this is where we’re at,” Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea, said Friday morning. “It seemed like the governor and the leadership were just so close to getting the deal put together … and then all of a sudden it would just crumble.”

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Murray said there needs to be a change in the way legislators negotiate the budget and other programs. With so many ideological differences at work, Murray said there is a reduced chance of making progress or forming innovative ideas.

Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, echoed Murray’s concerns, saying Minnesota is the most politically polarized it has been in years.

“We’ve really seen a problem with people negotiating and compromising,” Sparks said. “Party politics has been more polarized than ever here in Minnesota. We really need to find some people who can move to the center and get things done — that’s what people elected us to do.”

The heads of the state’s Republican and Democratic parties each said the other side is responsible.

Minnesota GOP Chairman Tony Sutton called Dayton a “piece of work” and accused him of inflicting “maximum pain” for political reasons.

“It now appears Gov. Dayton was working for a shutdown,” Sutton said.

There was no word early Friday of any plan to continue budget negotiations.

Even before the final failure, officials padlocked highway rest areas and state parks, herding campers out. The full impact will hit Friday morning as thousands of laid-off state employees stay home until further notice and a wide array of services are suspended.

The closure of so many revenue-generating state programs will only contribute to the budget deficit, democratic Rep. Jeanne Poppe, of Austin, said Friday morning.

“We’re talking about how the state is shutdown because there wasn’t an agreement on a $5 billion deficit, but now we’re adding to that deficit by not bringing in the revenue,” she said. “A loss in revenue does not help us.”

Murray, Sparks and Poppe all commented on state parks being closed for the Fourth of July holiday weekend; each said many Minnesotans likely had their weekend plans ruined by the shutdown.

“Why are we wrecking everybody’s weekend?” Murray said. “It makes no sense that we are not operating at just a limited basis.”

Murray said he thinks the state could have scraped by with minimal cuts as in the case of a partial shutdown, rather than closing all but core functions.

Functions such as state troopers, prison guards, the courts and disaster responses will continue. On Friday morning, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz begins the court-appointed job of sifting through appeals from groups arguing in favor of continued government funding for particular programs.

Poppe said the governor and legislative leaders should start taking a closer look at what Minnesotans value and choosing what areas of the budget to cut after outlining the state’s core values.

“We need to really have that basic discussion about in Minnesota when we value things how do we pay for them?” Poppe said. “Everybody in this state is going to pay something somehow. It’s a matter of trying to add fairness to who pays for the services.”

“How do we find that balance where everybody sacrifices something but nobody has to sacrifice everything?” she added.

Dayton addressed the looming shutdown at about 10 p.m. Thursday, emerging after a day of fitful negotiations with legislative Republicans to say the two sides were still fundamentally divided over how much the state should spend the next two years and that the shutdown was inevitable.

“This is a night of deep sorrow for me,” Dayton said.

Republican lawmakers had gathered at the Capitol for hours, demanding that Dayton do what he had said for months he would not do: Call a special session so they could pass a “lights on” budget bill to keep the government running. The governor insisted he would not give up that leverage without a total budget solution that incorporated the many facets of state spending.

“I don’t understand how we did not get to the point of at least getting a lights-on bill put together yesterday,” Murray said.

The governor has sole power to call a special session, but once one starts, it’s lawmakers who will decide when to adjourn.

“I think the governor’s insistence that we pass a full budget is not going to be of much comfort to Minnesotans who are going to see delays on the highways because construction projects stop,” said Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo. “It’s not going to comfort people who can’t use our state parks, or who can’t get a driver’s license.”

A stoppage in Minnesota also halts non-emergency road construction, shuts the state zoo and Capitol, and stops child-care assistance for the poor. More than 40 state boards and agencies expected to go dark.

Dayton has proposed raising taxes on couples earning more than $300,000 and individuals making more than $180,000. He said Thursday night that he had offered to target the tax increase to even higher earners, those making more than $1 million a year.

Republicans have opposed any new taxes or new revenue sources, arguing instead that the state should rely on spending cuts, including deeper reductions in health and welfare spending than Dayton is willing to accept.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.