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State, Union Agree To Shutdown Plan
By Laura McCallum , Minnesota Public Radio
June 15, 2001

The state and public employee unions have reached agreement on a plan to pay state workers if there's a government shutdown July 1. The move comes as legislative leaders appear no closer to a budget deal than they did when the special session began on Monday.

IF THE LEGISLATURE DOESN'T PASS A NEW TWO-YEAR BUDGET BY JULY 1, noncritical government functions will be suspended. Under the agreement reached by state and union officials, state workers who are sent home will be allowed to cash in their vacation or comp time for two weeks. If a shutdown continues past July 14, the state will lay off employees, making them eligible for severance and other benefits. Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, says the agreement will alleviate some of the stress of state employees, who worry about not getting a paycheck. "The emotional, human impact of this situation is horrendous, it's the only way I can describe it. It's a real maelstrom out there," he said.

Monroe says some state employees have had their house closings put on hold because of the uncertainty surrounding the potential shutdown. Union officials say the agreement will help the vast majority of state workers, who have at least 40 hours of vacation or comp time. Department of Employee Relations Commissioner Julien Carter says the agreement addresses the Ventura administration's concern that a short-term shutdown not be considered a layoff, which is much more costly to the state than simply paying workers for their vacation time.

"Where this has happened throughout the country - there are, you know, examples, at least, you know, one in particular in Florida where it was only 17 hours, and so our concern was, in the short run, was this really a layoff?," Carter said.

Unions agreed to drop their lawsuit against the state, which they filed when the state had initially planned to not pay state workers sent home. The unions retain the right to sue later on behalf of employees to restore lost vacation or wages. While the agreement gives some comfort to state workers, many other beneficiaries of state funding are likely to get unwelcome news next week. Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Health and Human Services Budget Division, says the state is required to send letters by Wednesday to Minnesotans who receive welfare benefits and other state services, warning them that funding may run out July 1.

"We would very much like to avoid having to needlessly concern hundreds of thousands of families, who have disabled children or elderly parents in nursing homes," Berglin said.

Berglin says the House and Senate remain "light years apart" on welfare provisions. The health and human services working group discussed extending welfare benefits past the 60-month time limit, and expanding health insurance for children, but made no major decisions.

Legislative leaders met behind closed doors, but also made little progress. "We couldn't even finally agree on the parameters," said House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, R-Eagan. He says despite meeting until midnight Thursday night and for a couple of hours Friday morning, legislative leaders and the governor's staff made no significant breakthrough on a budget deal.

"We're going to give the tax conference committee working group another few days to try to hash it out within the, just the broad parameters that have been set, and we'll assess their progress on Monday," Pawlenty said.

Tax conferees plan to meet again this weekend, but remain divided on how to structure property tax reform. Senate Democrats say cuts for businesses favored by House Republicans and the governor will shift the property tax burden to owners of low to mid-valued homes. House Republicans say Senate DFL leaders seem to be trying to run out the clock to the end of the month, possibly gambling that the prospects of a government shutdown will pressure the House to give in to the Senate's demands.