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Clock Ticks Toward Shutdown
By Laura McCallum , Minnesota Public Radio
June 26, 2001
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With four days to go before a potential government shutdown, Minnesota lawmakers are still wrestling with tax and spending issues. State employees picketed at more than 60 state buildings Tuesday to urge the Legislature to pass a new two-year budget before state funding runs out this weekend. Legislative leaders say they should be able to avoid a shutdown, but have yet to resolve some thorny issues from abortion to welfare reform.

DOZENS OF STATE EMPLOYEES RALLIED in front of the Capitol to show their frustration with the pace of legislative negotiations. Peter Benner, executive director of AFSCME Council 6, says many state employees don't know whether to show up for work on Monday.
AFSCME members urged lawmakers to pass a budget and avoid shutdown during a protest at the Capitol. Hours later, House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement on a tax bill that could avoid a shutdown.

Benner says the message to legislators is 'get it done': "It is time to end the session, it is time to stop holding state employees and their family members hostage to the inability of the political leaders to reach a decision."

AFSCME's 19,000 state workers include corrections officers, highway workers and state park staff. Marlene Sommerdorf, who works for the Department of Transportation, says the uncertainty is wearing on state employees. "People are losing a lot of sleep, it's affecting our lives," she said.

Sommerdorf says state workers have been told they won't get paid for Monday and Tuesday if there's a government shutdown, and will have to pay their own premiums for dental and life insurance after July 3, although health insurance will continue until the end of July.

Legislative leaders say they hope it doesn't come to that. "Certainly there's not going to be a shutdown," said House Speaker Steve Sviggum. "The only potential is a slowdown but that's not going to happen either."

Sviggum, R-Kenyon, says the Legislature should be able to pass the entire budget by the end of the week. "We'll be able to get these bills, I think, processed, enrolled, passed. You know, some of it depends upon some negotiations yet to take place, in, specifically, the transportation bill, the state government bill, the tax bill, the health and human service bill, and there has to be an honest give and take from both sides," he said.

Sviggum says as proof that the House is serious about finishing its work this week, the House passed bills funding early childhood education and jobs and economic development programs. The Senate plans to take up both bills Wednesday, and both bodies hope to pass the tax bill Wednesday as well, if the tax working group finishes negotiations.

Sviggum says the willingness to move quickly doesn't mean House Republicans will cave on the remaining unresolved issues, including extending welfare benefits past a 60-month limit, and restricting family planning money to organizations that don't discuss abortion as an option. Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, says if House Republicans were truly serious about avoiding a shutdown, they would go along with the budget compromise offered by Gov. Jesse Ventura last week.

Moe says the Senate has every intention of passing a budget: "We think it can be done. Again, some of the House conferees are dragging their feet on some of these different budget bills, but I think it is something that can still be accomplished, as a matter of fact, I think it could be accomplished and wrapped up as early as tomorrow."

That's the deadline Ventura has given legislators, according to spokesman John Wodele. "If we don't have the bills on the governor's desk on Thursday morning, we will then have to step up our preparation for a shutdown, because the likelihood or the odds of a shutdown or at least a partial shutdown are much, much greater if bills aren't passed by Wednesday," he said.

Wodele says Ventura wants to review all of the tax and spending bills at once, and doesn't plan to sign either of the bills that have passed both bodies - which fund higher education and natural resources - until he gets the entire budget. Ventura has three days to sign or veto spending bills or they go into law without his signature.