Ten Days and Counting: Why Minnesota's Government Could Shut Down July 1

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Charles Dharapak / AP

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, February 25, 2011.

Less than two weeks before the far-reaching mechanisms of Minnesota's government might come to a halt, Jessica Lund's mind is filled with thoughts of snikerdoodles. Lund, 38, has Down syndrome and was helping to bake the cinnamon-sugar cookies with a care worker in a group home on a recent afternoon. Five other adults with developmental disabilities live with Lund in this 2,000 square-foot rambler that looks like any other on a suburban block of Golden Valley — one of many homes run by Hammer, a private non-profit that's funded almost entirely by taxpayer money. Like the thousands of the state's most vulnerable citizens, Lund doesn't have a voice in the legislative brinkmanship that threatens to disrupt her life.

Minnesota's political leaders failed to pass a budget by the end of the legislative session on May 23. Now, the clock is ticking down to a fiscal deadline of June 30, the end of the current budget biennium, when lawmakers are required to pass another two-year budget that will close a $5 billion deficit. One of the more dramatic aspects of Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Gov. Mark Dayton's shutdown plan, submitted to a district court last week, involves the services of health care providers like Hammer. While the plan still deemed such entities as hospitals, clinics and nursing homes critical, state payments to those providers would have ceased. But on Monday, Dayton issued a minor but important revision, expanding the list of critical services that would be funded during a shutdown. That's good news for Tim Nelson, Hammer's president, who noted that some of whom are tube-fed or require vigilant, around-the-clock care. "We obviously have an extremely vulnerable population that we can't leave alone, can't be left unsupervised," he says. Late last week, Nelson was planning for the worst — talking to program directors about getting an extended line of credit should payments from the state cease.

Since 2002, there have been six state government shutdowns, the shortest lasting only hours, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Two shutdowns, the longest since 2002, lasted just over a week: one in Pennsylvania in 2007 and another in Minnesota in 2005. But the North Star State's political landscape has changed considerably since 2005. Republicans took both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years in a surprising 2010 electoral sweep — following a national trend that found the party picking up its largest majority in statehouses across the nation since 1928. But Minnesotans also elected their first democratic governor in two decades. Both parties, of course, have claimed that their rides into office represented a mandate — proof that Minnesotans wanted them to institute their political agendas.

But in a microcosm of the political gridlock and debt debates that have paralyzed Washington, Minnesota now finds itself at an impasse more severe than any in recent memory. The situation has become so intractable that it is raising the financial stakes for the state, says Arturo Perez, Fiscal analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. During the 2005 legislative session, a number of budget bills had been passed prior to the partial shutdown. But the only budget bill lawmakers enacted into law this year deals with agriculture, and it's one that might not matter much to the farmer who wouldn't be able to access loans for his or her crops under Dayton's shutdown plan. In the current plan, 46 state agencies would close entirely on July 1, while 29 would retain only minimal staffing. Two-thirds of the state's employees would be sent home from their jobs.

The ideologies underscoring the conflict are familiar: Several fiscal conservatives had entered the Capitol this year donning penny-pin lapels representing their idea that government shouldn't spend a penny more than the $34 billion currently in the state's coffers. Dayton, the former U.S. Senator, campaigned that the wealthiest Minnesotans are not paying their fair share in taxes. Originally, his plan, calling for about $37 billion in spending, would have raised taxes on the top 5 percent of earners in the state. But close to the end of the legislative session, he dropped $1.8 billion in tax increases from his proposal. The new plan raises taxes on the top two percent of Minnesotans individuals earning more than $150,000 of taxable income or joint filers earning more than $250,000.

Republicans, meanwhile, dismiss tax increases as a job killer and believe that citizens are smarter with their money than "bloated" government. They approved a budget for Dayton prior to the end of the session — a budget that Dayton roundly dismissed as the work of "extreme right-wing caucus members" (read: penny lapels) while issuing nine vetoes. Among the hardest hit areas in the proposed Republican budget: Higher education, aid to local governments and money for the state's human service programs, which would have suffered a $1.6 billion reduction. Dayton, who called those cuts draconian, says he will not call a special legislative session until a "universal compromise" is reached.

That said, universal compromise wasn't a campaign platform for either party, and a government shutdown is looking increasingly likely. On June 14, Republicans offered a plan that would discard $200 million of their tax relief proposals if Dayton agreed in turn to give up his tax hikes. That money would then be put in education and public safety. Republicans presented the new plan as a major concession, noting that it deviated from the campaign promises they made to voters. The governor, however, immediately decried this latest offering as a non-offer, stating that he had already met Republicans half way in dropping $1.8 billion of his proposed tax increases.

Meanwhile, the governor plans for a shutdown. What's testing him is a rigid provision in Minnesota's constitution that states no money can be spent except in pursuance of appropriation by law. Dayton is taking that provision seriously, says press secretary Katharine Tinucci. Indeed, his shutdown plan is far-reaching, affecting payments to schools and cities as well as management of the lottery, state parks, construction work, roads, and much more. Yet the constitution also declares that Minnesota's government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of its people. Dayton's plan will preserve emergency services such as state troopers and guards for correctional facilities. "We don't know a lot of the answers," says Tunucci, referring to the numerous questions that could have sweeping ramifications for life in Minnesota.

As a result of this polarized debate, thousands of non-profits and contractors across Minnesota that deliver state services are now bracing for the worse. Julie Manworren, executive director of Simpson Housing, which provides emergency shelters, said Friday that Simpson was informing the landlords that the organization might not be able to pay them August rents — which are subsidized by the state. "It's a great financial risk, to deliver services for which they might not get paid," says Jeannie Fox, deputy director of public policy for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. "But are you really going to turn someone away? These are questions that relate back to mission but really put an organization in a bind." Back at Hammer in Golden Valley, Lund's mother, Kathy, said that in talking with people at church and town hall meetings, there was little concern than a shutdown would actually take place. "There's a feeling that they're going to solve this because they've got to," she says. "People just don't realize how much is covered."