Minn. Lawmakers To Resume Budget Negotiations

State government operations in Minnesota have been shut down since last week after a budget stalemate. Rachel Stassen-Berger, a political reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, talks to Steve Inskeep about budget negotiations.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

It was a quiet Fourth of July weekend in Minnesota. State parks and other facilities were closed after the state government was forced to shut down over a $5 billion deficit. Negotiations are supposed to resume today, and as lawmakers talk, Rachel Stassen-Berger of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune knows it will look another holiday at state offices.

Ms. RACHEL STASSEN-BERGER (Political Correspondent, Minneapolis Star-Tribune): I think the impact will be felt much more deeply. Even over the weekend people could tell the government was shut down. Even if you go to a convenience store, all the lottery tickets were pulled from the shelves, because that part of government just isn't working.

Non-profits over the weekend were wondering whether they would get their state funds to be able to perform their service. And private business, including the vendors who do business with the state, and those who need permits, weren't getting those.

INSKEEP: Now on the federal level, if there is a government shutdown, as there was more than a decade ago, non-essential employees as they're called go home, but essential employees remain on the job. The troops don't come home from the wars for example. What essential employees remain on the job in Minnesota?

Ms. STASSEN-BERGER: There are some people who write the checks, people who are performing health care services for example. Of course, all the prison guards and the people who guard sex offenders in special facilities. People at nursing homes. All of them are still on the job, but there are actually about 20,000 state employees who are laid off, which makes this just in its first days, the largest layoff in state history ever.

INSKEEP: Is it better to say furlough, or are they actually fired?

Ms. STASSEN-BERGER: It's actually not a furlough, it is a layoff. There was an agreement between all the state employee unions and the state that there are some things that would normally happen in a layoff that aren't happening this time.

So for instance, they are not getting some of the huge severance packages that they might otherwise get, but they did get layoff notices, and they will be able to apply for unemployment.

INSKEEP: Unemployment. Does that mean that the shutdown is actually costing the state money?

Ms. STASSEN-BERGER: That's right. There are various estimates for how much it will cost, and part of it depends on how long it lasts. But it's in the millions per day of how much it's costing.

INSKEEP: Does it cost less at least than keeping the government open? Is there at least some savings in the government being shut down for a number of days?

Ms. STASSEN-BERGER: Not necessarily. In part because the two biggest government functions, school funding and health and human service funding, will continue. And in fact, there was some agreement previously when Governor Tim Pawlenty was governor, to cut back on those services, but in law, they cut back to higher levels.

And so in fact schools may be getting some more money at old levels under the shutdown than they would under the new levels that the governor and lawmakers might someday agree to.

INSKEEP: Granting that in broad terms you have a situation where it's a question of do you cut spending or do you raise taxes, or do some combination -which mirrors the national debate - has the difference between the parties boiled down to a single issue, or a handful of issues?

Ms. STASSEN-BERGER: It's certainly a handful of issues because even Democratic governor Mark Dayton has said that he would cut spending significantly. In his final offer, he said let's raise taxes on millionaires to fill in what we have as a budget deficit.

Republicans are against taxes. They want to cut deeper than Governor Dayton, but have also upped their number a little bit. So we're in sort of that murky stage of negotiations and when they go back into there today, it's unclear whether they'll start from zero, their hard won, hard fast positions, or some of the progress that they made in an intense last week of discussions will still take hold.

INSKEEP: You said Republicans have upped their number a little bit. Does that mean Republicans are willing to raise some revenues, increase some taxes?

Ms. STASSEN-BERGER: They're not willing to raise taxes at all, full stop. But they have talked about, particularly in that last week, raising some revenues through some borrowing maybe and through some shifts of school funding. It gets pretty technical, but they were willing to spend a little bit more than the state has in its coffers.

INSKEEP: And who's getting blamed for the shutdown right now?

Ms. STASSEN-BERGER: So far, what I'm seeing is, it's pox on all their houses. I've seen a lot of, you know, Republicans and Democrats - just get this done. But there's also some anger going on out there, and I've heard of some lawmakers who are actually kind of laying low because the anger out there is pretty vitriolic.

You see a lot of they should all be fired, and I'm never voting for any of them again. It feels a lot like the final days of a very heated campaign where everyone is just putting their emotions right out there, and being as nasty as they can possibly be.

INSKEEP: Rachel Stassen-Berger covers politics for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. STASSEN-BERGER: Thank you.

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