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Special master appointed to rule on essential services
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State parks around Minnesota would be empty -- closed to the public -- if state government shuts down on July 1 for lack of a budget agreement. (MPR Photo/Ted Clement)
A Ramsey County judge on Thursday ordered state officials to fund essential state services if there's a partial government shutdown at the end of the month. Lawmakers have been in special session for a month to work out a two-year budget. But if there's no budget deal by July 1, some services will cease. If there's any dispute over which services are essential, they will be mediated by former Supreme Court Justice Edward Stringer.

St. Paul, Minn. — Ramsey County Chief Judge Gregg Johnson said in court that he would rather stay out of the budget fight, and he urged state leaders to reach agreement. But if they fail to do so, Johnson's order would ensure that state money continues to fund core services.

The order says that core functions include matters relating to the health and safety of Minnesota citizens. That includes education funding, public health services, welfare payments, and road construction projects. A list of services Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office deemed to be critical will help guide, but not stricly define, what functions continue.

For the court to become involved in this matter, I do so with great care, caution and restraint.
- Ramsey County Judge Gregg Johnson

Lawyers for the state and Pawlenty appeared in court to argue for the order. Attorney General Mike Hatch says the court ruling is the best option under the circumstances, but he blasted state leaders for not agreeing on a budget.

"This is not a substitution for the way government ought to run," Hatch said. "This indicates that there is a failure of government, and it's an embarassment for the state of Minnesota."

The Republican-controlled House and DFL-controlled Senate have been unable to agree on major areas of state spending such as K-12 education and health and human services. If there is a shutdown on July 1, it would be the first in state history.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung says the governor hopes it doesn't come to that. "Our first priority is to try to get this budget impasse solved," he said. "That's where the governor's focus is. At the same time, our administration is planning in the event that we have to face a partial shutdown."

Judge Johnson also appointed a special master in the case - former Justice Ed Stringer. Stringer's role will be to hear disputes over what is an essential service, if issues can't be resolved by the attorney general and the governor's office. Stringer has expertise in both the judicial and executive branches - he also served as chief of staff to former governor Arne Carlson.

Stringer says he's honored to serve as special master if there's a shutdown: "I take it as a great responsibility. I think my role is to do what I can to keep the wheels on the tracks as far as state government is concerned."

Stringer says he won't make the final decision on what is a core service, but will make recommendations to judge Johnson. Stringer is a moderate Republican who supported Democrat John Kerry for president last year.

Attorney General Mike Hatch had asked the judge to appoint former governors Arne Carlson and Wendell Anderson as special masters, but Governor Pawlenty didn't consider the two impartial enough.