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State, worker groups prep for possible state shutdown
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Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, a major employees union, urged Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders to get their work done on time, saying many workers can't hold on for long. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
State officials are preparing to mothball entire sections of state government if a new budget isn't approved by the end of the month. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and lawmakers remain deadlocked over how to pay for major programs, including K-12 schools and health care services. If a new budget isn't in place by July 1, as many as one in three state workers could face a temporary loss of work that would evolve into layoffs by mid-July.

St. Paul, Minn. — As many as 16,000 public employees could be affected if the state goes into a partial government shutdown next month. For the first two weeks of July, employees with accrued vacation or compensation time can draw down those balances to keep the paychecks coming. But after that period expires on July 15, the layoff notices would start to flow.

Eliot Seide, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 5, the state's largest public employees union, says letting workers temporarily rely on vacation and comp time offers some limited relief. But he says workers would much prefer that Gov. Pawlenty and the Legislature bridge their differences and approve a budget. Seide says the average worker he represents makes about $35,000 a year.

"They live paycheck to paycheck. This is about rent; this is about health care; this is about taking care of their children or their parents. There's not a lot of margin of error here," according to Seide.

Seide notes that workers who don't have sufficient vacation or comp time balances could see their paychecks run out immediately.

Employee Relations Commissioner Cal Ludeman, who represented the state in its negotiations with the unions, says even the two-week grace period represents a sacrifice, since it requires state workers to draw down their vacation benefits to get paid.

"Actually there is pain being incurred on July 1. That employees can use some comp or vacation accrual time for a paycheck still means they are losing in this proposition," he said.

Only three major budget bills have already been approved and signed into law. Unresolved are the larger budget areas like K-12 education, health care, transportation and tax policy.

Although many state workers will undoubtedly suffer, it's not clear how noticeable a shutdown will be to the general public. Faced with a similar impending shutdown four years ago, a Ramsey County judge issued an order giving then-Gov. Jesse Ventura broad discretion in keeping "core" services operating.

Fred Morrison, a University of Minnesota expert on the state constitution, says a shutdown won't lead to anarchy.

"The mental health system would continue to operate; the state-owned nursing homes would continue to operate; food and meat inspection would continue to operate; law enforcement would continue to operate; the courts would continue to operate," according to Morrison.

So far there's no definitive list of what state programs would keep running. Morrison says deciding what will be on that list is at the center of a dispute between Pawlenty and Attorney General Mike Hatch over who should represent the state in seeking court authority to keep some state programs running.

Morrison says whoever defines the list has the power to turn up or turn down the pressure on budget negotiators. If the list is broad enough, Morrison says lawmakers may feel comfortable letting the state limp through the summer.

"Then lawmakers will say, 'Oh, no, we can hold out for another month until we get our way,'" he says.

So far Pawlenty and Hatch say they've no intention of taking the state through a shutdown. Pawlenty says even non-critical functions, like state parks, are important to Minnesotans.

"Certain essential functions, certain core functions would continue. But beyond that, things that are considered amenities would not be funded. And that would be very terrible. Things like the state parks, for example. Could you imagine a scenario where the state parks would be closed on July 4th weekend? It'd be terrible," says Pawlenty.

Hatch says pushing the matter into court is likely to entangle the state in a web of lawsuits.

"But if we go to where we think we don't even have to get it resolved until July 1, that somehow the courts are going to start defining the budgets, that's not going to occur. It will be a mess," Hatch says.

Lawmakers are now in their third week of a special legislative session meant to finish their budget work; so far, no deal is in sight.