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Judge keeps some executive branch work open in shutdown

ST. PAUL -- State troopers and prison guards will remain on duty, and most state-funded health-care programs will continue during a state shutdown, but parks and most state child-care programs would close.

Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin of Ramsey County District Court Wednesday ordered the state to follow a list presented two weeks ago by Gov. Mark Dayton that would keep more than a third of the state's nearly 40,000 workers on the job even without a budget.

"The executive branch agencies will not have sufficient funds to carry out their core functions," Gearin wrote about the lack of a budget. "The failure to properly fund critical core functions of the executive and legislative branches will violate the constitutional rights of the citizens of Minnesota."

While state workers were studying the Gearin order, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders were in budget negotiations, in what Dayton said was the last day they have to avoid a shutdown.

Also today, the two largest state unions announced they have an agreement with the state to protect rights of laid-off state workers.

Reaction to Gearin's ruling was mixed.

Local government officials were happy that she ordered state payments to them to continue.

"There is no doubt that cities dodged a major bullet this morning that may have crippled communities," said Park Rapids Mayor Nancy Carroll, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. "It is just as important that the final budget compromise does not impose yet another round of cuts to cities that will result in higher property taxes for families and businesses and make communities less competitive for retaining and growing jobs."

A prime critic of the Republican legislative majorities said the need for a court order was a bad sign.

"Judge Gearin's ruling today is an unfortunate sign that compromise and the devotion to the public interest have broken down at the state Capitol," Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley said.

Failure to fund the executive branch, even for a short time, "nullifies these constitutional offices, which in turn contravenes the Minnesota Constitution," Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin of Ramsey County wrote.

She appointed former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz as "special master," who will make specific recommendations about what would be funded. Gearin retained the final say.

Gearin's order, which could be appealed to a higher court, told Commissioner Jim Schowalter of Minnesota Management and Budget to "timely issue checks and process such funds as necessary to pay for the performance of the critical core functions of government. ..."

The judge ruled that prison guards will remain on duty, along with workers at nursing homes, veterans' homes and the like. Public safety and public health workers will keep working, Gearin ruled, keeping the State Patrol on the highways and Health Department investigators at work.

State road construction projects are not essential services and should not continue, Gearin ruled. She would keep the Minnesota Zoo closed, along with the state's two horse-racing tracks.

Most child care programs would be suspended, but temporary assistance to needy families would continue.

Also, state computer systems and "essential elements of the financial system of the government" will continue.

Gearin's order also keeps open the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. It has enough money to remain open through the fall term, but needs the state finance agency to write checks and do other financial work.

Federal government-supported programs need to continue, Gearin wrote, such as several that provide health care for the poor, disabled and elderly. Also allowed to continue is what used to be known as the food stamp program.

The Dayton administration and other statewide officials should limit themselves to keeping open "only the most critical functions o government involving the security, benefit and protection of the people," Gearin wrote.

The judge agreed with contractors who said shutting down road and bridge construction projects will result in higher costs, but she said they are not a core government function.

"The delay in construction and increase costs that will likely happen as a result of a government shutdown will be because of the executive and legislative branches failing to resolve the budget issues," Gearin wrote.

Gearin's order came an hour after the governor and legislative leaders sequestered themselves this morning for what was described as a final run at making a budget deal to avoid a Friday government shutdown. They met for a couple of hours before taking a break. They have not said how long they will meet today.

On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said that today is the last chance for action since a special legislative session is needed to approve any deal. And with 200 lawmakers scattered around the state, scheduling a special session before the Thursday night deadline must happen today.

"I'm always optimistic," Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said as she walked into the governor's office with House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

Dayton and legislative leaders refuse to discuss the progress of negotiations. However, there have been no indications that they are close to an agreement and several hints they remain far apart.

They are discussing nine budget bills to fund various parts of state government. Only agriculture programs have been funded, but if there is a government shutdown even some of those programs may not have access to their funds.

A shutdown is possible because after Thursday most state executive branch agencies will have no authorization to spend money. However, a judge is allowing the courts to remain open and legislative offices will stay open into July.

Going into negotiations, Democrats and Republicans had many differences in how to spend the state's money, but an even bigger difference about how much to spend.

Dayton proposes a $35.8 billion budget for the two years beginning Friday, fueled in part by a $1.8 billion tax increase on Minnesota's highest earners. Republicans reject the tax and pledged to limit spending to $34 billion.

State workers had been concerned that they would lose some of their rights during a shutdown.

"This agreement protects our health insurance and it ensures that we will be able to return to work with all our benefits intact," said Eliot Seide, director of the Amiercan Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 and chief negotiator of the deal. "But, it also means laid-off state workers won't get severance or vacation checks during the shutdown. Once again, state employees are doing their part to fix the budget."

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.