Minnesota Government Grinds To A Halt

fromMPR

Thousands of state workers had an unscheduled day off in Minnesota Friday. Many functions of state government are on hold after the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton failed to reach agreement on a budget for the fiscal year that began Friday.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It has been a week of bickering over budget deficits, both nationally and on the state and local level. These austere fiscal times figure in several of our reports today and we'll talk with our political observers about it in just a moment.

BLOCK: First, this example. Today, in Minnesota, highway construction came to a halt, rest stops and state parks closed. And on top of all that, 22,000 state workers have been laid off.

Here's Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio on the partisan dispute over that state's budget.

MATT SEPIC: For most people today, the government shutdown is a minor inconvenience. Sixteen-year-olds hoping to take the drivers test will have to wait and people wanting to camp in state parks tonight are making other plans. But for state workers who aren't getting paid, the shutdown is a definite hardship. Last night in St. Paul, hundreds of them came out in the summer heat for a protest vigil at the capital.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

SEPIC: By this time, closed-door budget negotiations had sputtered to a halt inside. Revenue department worker, Jenny Foster(ph), says she'd given up hope there'd be an agreement.

Ms. JENNY FOSTER (Minnesota Revenue Department): You know, they're just sitting there playing their games for show. We know - I know what they're doing isn't for real. They're just for show to say, yeah, we're working, but they're not.

SEPIC: Governor Mark Dayton and Republican lawmakers had already stopped negotiating. Dayton wants to raise income taxes on top earners to help close a $5 billion budget gap. Republicans, in charge of both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years, say that's out of the question.

The GOP offered a last minute stop-gap funding bill, but the governor rejected it. And Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch placed blame for the shutdown squarely on him.

State Senator AMY KOCH (Republican, Minnesota): The shutdown is not necessary. And once again, we've proved that by laying on the governor's desk a temporary funding bill, keeping government going for the next ten days while we finish those negotiations.

SEPIC: But Governor Dayton said the Lights On bill was just a publicity stunt and Republicans had plenty of time to help close the divide on taxes and spending.

Governor MARK DAYTON (Minnesota): Anybody who wanted to avoid a shutdown today had - knew there was one way to do it. That was to accept a budget proposal that would bridge this gap and the Republican caucuses rejected our offers to do so.

SEPTIC: With the executive and legislative branches of Minnesota government at loggerheads, power has shifted to the courts for now. A judge has ruled that prisons, the state police, nursing homes, Medicaid and other critical services must continue operating.

As Minnesotans start to miss the nonessentials, like state parks and subsidized child care, Washington University political scientist Steven Smith says pressure on the governor and legislative leaders to reach a deal will grow. And Smith says that's especially true of lawmakers. He says many were elected last November in a highly partisan atmosphere and that's a disincentive for compromise.

Professor STEVEN SMITH (Washington University): And the question today is whether, you know, we have elected officials who, you know, really become true believers in the cause. They don't stand apart from the negotiations. Everything becomes a lot more personal. And the result is that compromise becomes that much more difficult.

SEPIC: Smith says with an election next year, the political costs for freshman Republicans could be especially high if the Democratic governor is successful in pinning the blame for the shutdown on them.

Meanwhile, the financial impact of the closure is still uncertain. The state will save some money by not paying workers. But if the shutdown drags on, Minnesota taxpayers could be on the hook for millions in unemployment payments to public employees, as well as missed park fees and delays in construction projects.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Paul.

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