Minnesotans Frustrated As Shutdown Hits Day Eight
MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will tell you about Africa's newest country starting tomorrow, South Sudan. The celebrations there are getting under way, but the elation is tempered by some sobering challenges that the new country faces. We'll hear from NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who is there, and from special correspondent Rebecca Hamilton, who just spent most of the last year there. That conversation is coming up. But first, we want to talk about some very pressing issues here at home.
Like many people, we've been following the negotiations over how to reduce federal spending and most important, the budget deficit. Congressional Republicans have tied those conversations to a vote on whether to increase the nation's debt ceiling. President Obama will meet again on Sunday with congressional leaders trying to come up with a compromise. The administration says that without a deal by August 2nd, the U.S. could start defaulting on this debt. And that could have a terrible effect on the economy.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, there's a similar situation on a smaller scale. There's still no deal between the Democratic governor and the Republican legislature, eight days past a constitutional deadline that has forced much of the state government to shut down. Twenty-two thousand employees have been told to stay home as the two sides wrestle over how to resolve a $5 billion deficit. We wanted to talk more about this situation and how it's affecting people in Minnesota, so we're joined by Catharine Richert. She's a political reporter for Minnesota public radio who's been writing for MPR's Shutdown 2011 blog.
Also with us, Trixie Ann Golberg, president of Life Track Resource. That's a nonprofit that provides services for immigrants, refugees, and people with disabilities - and they've been affected by the shutdown. Thank you both so much for joining us.
CATHARINE RICHERT: Thank you.
TRIXIE ANN GOLBERG: Thank you.
MARTIN: Catharine, I'm going to start with you. How did it get to this point?
RICHERT: Well, the big issue here is that Governor Dayton would like to increase taxes on Minnesota's wealthiest. At this point, he's proposing an income tax increase on those making more than a million dollars. Republicans, on the other hand, are interested in cutting spending, and so that's really the rub here - increasing taxes or cutting spending. And that's where we left things at midnight on June 30th, when our fiscal year ended.
MARTIN: Were people surprised that it got to this point? Has this ever happened before in this state?
RICHERT: Well, we had a partial government shutdown back in 2005 but, you know, I would say that the rub between the Democrats and Republicans in our capital has been going on, really, since the beginning of the year, when Governor Dayton took office. So I think we've been hearing a lot of the same arguments happening over the last, you know, six months.
MARTIN: So, what aspects of government service have been most affected or, I mean, I'm assuming that law enforcement is still on the job. What are some of the things that are affected?
RICHERT: Sure. So yeah, you're right, you know, anything that sort of affects life and property and protection are still in place. So that means cops, 911 dispatchers, they're still on the job. But it's a lot of other things that you might not think of immediately. For instance, all of our state parks are closed. And I can tell you that Minnesotans love to spend time outside in the summer. They hunt, they fish, they get out on their boat on our lakes. And when you shut the state parks down, especially over the Fourth of July weekends, you know, people get frustrated.
We're also not doing any road construction. We have a lot of potholes in Minnesota that are not being filled right now, a lot of highways that aren't being widened. So the scope is pretty broad, I would say.
MARTIN: So Trixie - and your organization is a nonprofit. You're not a government agency per se, but you've still been tremendously affected by this shutdown. Tell us how.
GOLBERG: Yes, that's correct. Twenty-eight percent of our revenue actually comes through the state in one form or another - either a direct allocation, or it's federal dollars that have to go through some kind of authorization process, or it's county dollars that are caught up in a state-approval process. So we're impacted both by the lack of funding and the lack of authorization to carry out our work.
MARTIN: Well, can you give us an example of some of the programs that have been affected?
GOLBERG: Certainly. Our services that we provide to federally designated refugees and legal immigrants has been on shutdown for the last eight days. We provide support to individuals with significant disabilities, including a serious mental illness. We provide support to families who have children who are diagnosed with hearing loss.
MARTIN: So meaning what? That people can't get - if there are social workers who are set to visit these families to offer support, they can't go? Can you give us some specific examples of some of the things that might happen?
GOLBERG: Absolutely. It is the human resources that are no longer available to them, as well as the financial support and training support and job supports that these programs provide. For instance, in our services supporting refugees and immigrants, we provide support for job search, job placement, relocation. Many of our refugees have extremely limited English language skills and are in need of translation services. They are in need of support in meeting their basic needs such as transportation, housing, enrolling their children in school - all those supports that go along with helping them to create a firm and solid foundation.
MARTIN: So for example, someone who is a legal immigrant, or perhaps a political asylum seeker.
MARTIN: Someone who's just here from - let's say Iraq, OK. And you're helping this family resettle, enroll in school. None of that can proceed right now because none of the people who do those services are being paid, and so you have to what? So they're all laid off?
GOLBERG: Correct. We had to lay off approximately a third of our employees. And so on June 30th, we were contacting each of our 700-some open cases, letting them know that their support person, their job counselor would not be available during the shutdown. We tried to reassure them as much as possible. And again, doing things - translating to a different language is challenging, as you can imagine. And for many of our refugees and legal immigrants, their own experiences of what a government shutdown is, and entails - it's quite confusing to understand the political nature of Minnesota's government shutdown.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the shutdown of the Minnesota state government, and we're talking about how it's affecting different people. With us are Trixie Ann Golberg. That's who was speaking just now. She's president of Life Track Resource. That's a nonprofit human services organization. Also with us, Catharine Richert. She's a political reporter and blogger for Minnesota Public Radio.
Catharine, we've been hearing that the shutdown is actually costing the state money. How is that?
RICHERT: Sure. So, you know, I go back to the Department of Natural Resources. By shutting down the state parks, we're estimating about $1 million lost in revenue every week from camping fees, hunting, you know, licensing fees, that sort of thing. We're also looking at the state lottery being shut down, and that's costing the state about 2.3 million every week. So the list goes on and on.
There's lost money due to loss of productivity - you know, organizations that have been sort of spending weeks prepping for this and not doing their actual, you know, regular jobs. So, you know, I think we probably won't get that final number until after this is all over. But certainly, it's a lot of money.
MARTIN: How was it determined which services would be offered, and which ones would not? I mean, because - and there have been a couple of occasions when the federal government has shut down. And there are people who are considered essential, and they stay on the job. And the people who are considered...
MARTIN: ...non-essential, which I'm sure doesn't feel very good but is the term that's used, don't - how was it determined in Minnesota, for example? What was essential and what was not? I'm thinking about something like child-care subsidies, I mean, without child-care subsidies...
RICHERT: Sure, so...
MARTIN: ...people can't work. So even if they could go to work, they can't go to work. How is that determined, do...
RICHERT: Right. So I'll try to keep it as simple as possible. But the long story short is that the governor and his administration, as well as our attorney general, went to a judge and said, this is what we think should stay open. And they gave this judge their list. But ultimately, those decisions rest with our courts in Minnesota. So a woman named Judge Kathleen Gearin has been the person making these decisions. She has also appointed someone, called a special master. And this is someone who hears testimony, I guess, from organizations like Trixie's, who say, hey, you know, we're not state employees, but we provide critical services. And we think we should still get state funding throughout the government shutdown.
So that's the process we've been in right now. We're hearing new rulings every day about things that were deemed not essential and suddenly are. And one of those things is child-care support from the state. Now initially, child-care support had been deemed non-critical, and that happened last Wednesday, on the 29th. However, since then, Governor Dayton has gone back to the courts and said hey, we really think this money should be considered a core government function. These are essentially state subsidies that help parents send their kids to child care so they can keep a job, you know?
MARTIN: I understand. We only have a couple minutes left. I wanted ask one more thing of each of you. Catharine, we've seen, over the course of the year, some very intense battles over the budget along philosophical, ideological and partisan lines. We've seen this in Wisconsin, for example, over the question of revoking collective bargaining rights where, you know, the Democrats in the legislature runs one side, and that's - the governor and Republicans on the legislature were on a different side.
And of course in Washington, there's a partisan and philosophical divide over reducing the budget deficit. So that's the substance of it. How are the politics playing out? And there's a Democratic governor - he was elected; obviously, feels that he has a mandate for his point of view. You've got a Republican legislature. They were elected. They feel they have a mandate for their point of view. How are the politics shaking out right now? Can you sense where the public is on this, and who they think is right?
RICHERT: Yeah, you know, I mean, I would say that the last election was really close. I mean, we had another recount when Governor Dayton was elected. I think that speaks to the fact that Minnesotans are divided over these issues. And what we've been hearing are lots of finger pointing. You know, some people think it's the Republicans that are to blame for this. Some people think it's Governor Dayton to blame. But I would say the thing that unites Minnesotans over this is that they are frustrated about this. No one is happy about it.
We've had a lot of people write in and say hey, we're voting for independents - candidates in the next time around. You know, so I would say that this will certainly be part of our 2012 elections.
MARTIN: And Trixie Ann, finally, before we let you go, you mentioned that many of the people that you and your agency works with are new to this country and don't understand what's going on. How do you explain it to them?
GOLBERG: Well, we've tried to translate it as best as we can. There was actually serious concern that electricity would be turned off, water would be turned off. And again, in their life experience, those were realities. So working with them through our trained staff, through our translators as we had them available, to provide information with them directly, to translate. And we can continue to provide kind of a support service at our office, in a community center, where individuals and displaced clients can work with individuals to help them navigate. Our United Way has come together to support our 211 information resource. So we're attempting to connect people with good information and resources as best we can.
MARTIN: Trixie Ann Golberg is president of Lifetrack Resource. That's a nonprofit which provides services for immigrants, refugees, and people with significant disabilities. She came to us thanks to American Public Media's Public Insight Network. She was with us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, along with Catharine Richert. She's a political reporter from Minnesota Public Radio. She's been writing about the events for MPR Shutdown 2011 blog. Ladies, thank you both so much for joining us.
RICHERT: Thanks for having us.
GOLBERG: Thank you.
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