End of Minn. shutdown in sight; lawmakers to vote

Published 1:36 pm Tuesday, July 19, 2011

ST. PAUL — An end to Minnesota’s nearly three-week-long state government shutdown came into view on Tuesday, when Gov. Mark Dayton called the Legislature into a special session to vote on a budget deal.

The 19-day government stoppage has sullied Minnesota’s good-government reputation, while disrupting lives and businesses around the state.

It will be over only after both chambers of the Republican-controlled Legislature approve nine budget bills and Dayton, a Democrat, signs them into law. Legislative leaders and Dayton agreed before the votes began to limit the scope of the special session and lawmakers’ ability to tinker with the bills in an effort to keep the budget pact from unraveling once 200 legislators get involved.

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Both chambers came to order shortly after 3 p.m., and House Speaker Kurt Zellers said he expected the Legislature to work through the night to end the shutdown as quickly as possible.

“This is an agreement that will get Minnesota back to work and will get it back to work as quickly as possible,” Zellers said.

The government stoppage idled 22,000 state employees, halted road work at the height of a short construction season, suspended lottery ticket sales and some services to the vulnerable and even interrupted the flow of alcohol to some bars. It was softened by court rulings requiring the state to keep paying schools, local governments and health care program costs. As the closure wore on, the court restored funding for services ranging from child care aid to meal delivery for the elderly.

The shutdown resulted from a months-long standoff between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republicans legislative leaders over taxes and spending. They left most of state government without the authority to spend money when they failed to enact a new two-year budget by the end of June.

The final budget bills don’t contain the income tax increases Dayton sought, after Republicans refused to budge on that front. But they spend more than the GOP wanted to and rely on borrowed money from school districts and a stream of tobacco settlement payments to help close a $5 billion deficit.

Passage of the entire set of budget bills isn’t guaranteed. A crop of Republican newcomers in the Legislature strongly opposed adding any revenue to the budget beyond the $34 billion the state was already projected to take in over two years. Others were upset that some social issues that had been on the table were removed as one of Dayton’s conditions for a deal.

Some GOP lawmakers have refused to say how they plan to vote on the bills or ducked the question altogether. Their votes are key to passage since most of the minority Democrats are expected to vote against the budget bills.

On Tuesday, first-term Sen. Paul Gazelka, a Republican from Brainerd, said his mind has been changed over the past few days because of provisions included in bills for health and welfare programs and state government programs. He said he is likely to vote for the budget bills and guesses they will pass the Senate, where first-term Republicans make up most of the GOP caucus.

“We want to get it done and get the state moving,” Gazelka said.

Dayton said some laid-off state workers could be back on the job as early as Wednesday. But his chief of staff, Tina Smith, later downplayed those expectations, saying the governor will wait to sign the bills until they’re all on his desk. Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter said state employees probably will be called back to work the day after Dayton signs the bills, but some operations such as road construction projects could take longer to restart.

Special session votes are also expected on a construction financing package and bills addressing pensions and the distribution of dedicated sales tax money to outdoors and cultural programs.

“Everyone will look at this, including ourselves, and say, ‘Well, we didn’t have this, we don’t have that, we have this we don’t want, we have that we don’t want’ — that’s just the essence of compromise,” Dayton said, adding that he was relieved the shutdown was likely to end soon.

The governor and Republican and Democratic legislative leaders signed a two-page agreement that limits the scope of the session to a dozen bills and prohibits any amendments being offered to the budget bills, a move to make it harder for rank-and-file legislators to derail the deal. The signed agreement stipulated the session would end by early Thursday, but Zellers said he hopes it will be sooner.

The deal came about after Dayton moved to accept an offer the GOP made just before the shutdown started. It would raise $1.4 billion in new revenue by delaying aid payments to schools and borrowing against future payments from a settlement with tobacco companies.

The shutdown was Minnesota’s second government closure in six years, but this one was far more extensive than a partial closure in 2005, closing state parks and highway rest areas and creating headaches for everyone from brides who had to move weddings to newly minted professionals who couldn’t get state licenses.