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Legislative leaders hoping for breakthrough
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State employees who've been laid off rallied at the Capitol Wednesday, calling for an end to the state government shutdown. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
On the sixth day of a partial state government shutdown, several hundred state workers rallied at the Capitol Wednesday asking for their jobs back. They want the Legislature to pass a "lights-on" bill to fund all government functions until the budget impasse is resolved. DFLers have made a new offer aimed at ending the budget stalemate.

St. Paul, Minn. — Nearly 9,000 state workers have been off the job since last Friday. Many of them came to the Capitol to send a message to state leaders At an afternoon rally, they carried signs and chanted, "We want to work!"

Many carried signs that said "we're all critical." But according to a court order, they're not. A judge ordered the state to pay for core services relating to the life, health and safety of Minnesotans. That includes nursing homes, health care for the poor and road construction.

Among the workers that don't fall into that category are people who issue permits, inspect bridges and test new drivers. The executive director of AFSCME Council 5, Eliot Seide, told workers they're caught in the middle of the budget battle.

"We are not a political wedge! We are not hostages! We are not pawns," Seide yelled to the crowd. "We're working people who need a paycheck to survive, and we want to work!"

Seide asked a court-appointed special master to declare all state workers critical, but the special master recommended that Seide's request be denied.

The shutdown is costing the state about $2 million a day, according to Employee Relations Commissioner Cal Ludeman. Ludeman says the biggest cost is the lost productivity of state workers.

"We want them to come back to work as soon as this is over," says Ludeman. "All I can say is we want a negotiated settlement and to have the shutdown end as soon as possible, and we want them back as employees."

Legislative leaders say they share that goal. DFL Senate leaders released their latest offer, which they describe as a compromise to end the shutdown. It includes several items that have been discussed already, such as Gov. Pawlenty's proposed 75-cent a pack cigarette tax increase, which he calls a health impact fee.

One new element would expand the number of card tables at the Canterbury Park racetrack from 50 to 100. Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, who has long opposed any expansion of gambling, says he agreed to support the card club in the spirit of compromise.

"I don't think that we should expand the tables at Canterbury. But I will also tell you it's not my job as a state senator, nor as a citizen of this state, to tell people how to spend their money," says Johnson.

The Senate offer does not include slot machines at Canterbury, a proposal that Republican leaders support, but DFLers have strongly opposed.

Republican leaders are reviewing the DFL offer and plan to return to the bargaining table. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says neither side will get everything it wants.

"I understand at the end no one's going to be totally happy with the result," says Sviggum. "But we're trying to find that win-win, so that it's mostly a win, first of all, for Minnesota."

Sviggum has said he won't support a lights-on bill to keep government functioning while budget talks continue. He says that would institutionalize gridlock.

Minnesota is the only state in the country with a partial government shutdown. A budget expert from the National Conference of State Legislatures says five other states haven't passed their budgets, but all have some type of continuing resolution to fund government.

Minnesota can also claim a record in recent history -- no other state government shutdown has lasted more than three days.

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