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On the chopping block, state workers urge a budget deal
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The prospect of a shutdown forced Deepa DeAlwis, a pesticide expert at the Department of Agriculture, to save her vacation time and ensure at least a few extra days of pay if she gets a layoff notice. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
State employee unions are urging Gov. Pawlenty and legislative leaders to reach a budget compromise. Nearly 16,000 state employees will be out of work if the budget impasse causes a partial state government shutdown on July 1. Those workers would have the option to take vacation and comp time for the first two weeks in July if a shutdown occurs, but would be laid off on July 15. Many say they don't have vacation time and are worried they'll have difficulty making ends meet.

St. Paul, Minn. — Officials with the two largest state employee unions held a news conference at Fort Snelling State Park on Tuesday to highlight the problems that a partial government shutdown would cause. Fort Snelling Park ranger Sharon Decker stood in front of the boat launch at the park and talked about the many people who have reservations to camp at the state parks over the July Fourth weekend. She says those people won't be able to enjoy the natural resources at 72 parks and recreation areas if a shutdown occurs.

"The state park system in Minnesota is the key access to that natural resource. If you cut off the state parks, you're also cutting off access at the key point of the summer where it's used," she said.

Decker and several other employees who spoke at the news conference could be out of work on July 1. Many other state employees will continue to work since their jobs are considered core government functions. A judge ruled last week that services relating to the life, health and safety of Minnesotans should continue even if a budget is not passed.

Highway Helper Kevin Tucker said he won't be able to work on July 1. He says he's living paycheck to paycheck and any loss in pay will cause him financial problems. He says he and other state employees have not received a raise in three years, while out-of-pocket costs continue to climb.

"Everything is going up around us. I go to the gas station, it used to cost $25 to fill up, now it costs $45. All of these things is costing net profit and now you put us out of the streets for two weeks? It's just not fair," Tucker said. Furloughed employees will have the chance to use vacation and comp time for the two weeks between July 1 and July 15.

Deepa de Alwis, who's an agriculture chemical adviser, was scheduled to take vacation this week. It would have been her first family vacation in more than four years. But she says the uncertainty of a shutdown forced her to keep working. De Alwis says her family is also cutting back on expenses in case the shutdown continues well into July.

"I made arrangements to cut down my costs so because of that I can make it, but it will be difficult. Pretty soon my health insurance will run out if it goes too long and that will be a major blow to me," she said.

Union leaders used the news conference to criticize lawmkers for failing to reach a budget deal. Elliot Seide, the executive director of the American Federal State County and Municipal Employees Council 5, says his members want to see a budget deal as soon as possible.

"State employees work hard everyday," he said. "They're proud to serve the people of Minnesota. They get paid only if they get their jobs done. It's simply wrong that hard- working state employees suffer because Gov. Pawlenty and lawmakers can't get their job done."

Seide and other union leaders want lawmakers to pass a bill that would continue to operate state government if they can't reach an overall budget deal. The DFL-controlled Senate took several steps in that direction. The Senate Rules Committee approved a bill that would fund government at current spending levels. That would mean no funding increase for K-12 schools. The bill is now headed for a vote by the full Senate.

Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, says the measure would keep government running while legislative leaders continue negotiations.

"It's a vote to allow a family to go to Itasca State Park for the Fourth of July weekend to allow them to go to Itasca State Park. It's a vote for a special ed family dependent on special education money makes sure that their child gets special education services," he said.

Critics of the "lights on" bill say the effort is a waste of time since House Republicans and Gov. Pawlenty have rejected the idea.

Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield, says Senate DFLers are pushing the bill so state employees and the public can't blame them if a shutdown occurs.

"It's covering your political backside," he said. "You know this isn't going to be passed by the House and the governor. So why are you wasting time running this up the flagpole? Get in there and deal with the real bill."

As state workers bemoaned the possible shutdown, the special master appointed to sort through which state services are critical and which aren't sat through hours of testimony from officials and state contract-holders who were looking to be declared essential.

The special master, Edward Stringer, a former state Supreme Court justice, had a warning for one testy building official who complained that a state shutdown would slow down or halt building inspections and hurt his business.

"You need to understand this is not business as usual," Stringer said. "The fact that you have a contract doesn't make it something I can recommend as a core service."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.