Minn. government shutdown could be hours away

Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota's state government could be headed for a shutdown at the end of the day Thursday barring a budget agreement that so far remains elusive.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders failed to strike a budget deal Wednesday, which the governor had called pivotal to preventing major disruptions to state services. Such a shutdown would serve as a potent symbol of gridlock between a Democratic governor who wants to raise taxes and Republican legislative majorities who refuse.

Dayton and Republicans ended a day's worth of meetings about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday with all involved vowing to keep talking Thursday. Republicans have been pressing the governor to call a special session so they can pass a "lights on" budget bill to keep government operating past 12:01 a.m. Friday, when a shutdown would start, but the governor has resisted that approach.

As Dayton and lawmakers floated in and out of meetings Wednesday, a judge issued a bare-bones list of services that she said must be maintained if there is a shutdown.

A shutdown wouldn't affect critical functions such as the State Patrol, prison guards, disaster responses and other essentials. But many services that Minnesota residents take for granted would be closed — including state park campgrounds on one of the summer's biggest holiday weekends, road projects at the height of the construction season and licensing for an array of new professionals from physicians to manicurists.

"This is going to be a tough shutdown, and people will notice," said David Lillehaug, Dayton's attorney in the case. "Anyone who says that government doesn't do anything and doesn't do it well, upon reading this order ... they're going to realize they're very, very wrong."

Dayton and top Republicans stopped talking publicly about their negotiations days ago, saying they didn't want to jeopardize any progress. After breaking for the last time Wednesday night, Michel said the two sides were "very close" but provided no further details.

Dayton did not appear before the press Wednesday.

The budget dispute dates to January, when Dayton became the state's first Democratic governor in 20 years and Republicans took over the Legislature for the first time in 38 years.

Republicans swept to power campaigning against tax and spending increases, while Dayton won on a message of raising taxes on the highest earners. A five-month legislative session and intermittent negotiations since adjournment last month have produced no visible progress.

With the politicians mostly silent, the most significant development Wednesday came from Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin. She weighed arguments from several parties on which services should be maintained in a shutdown, and ultimately sided mostly with Dayton's minimalist list.

Gearin found that some programs, such as horse racing and child care aid programs not directly tied into the federal welfare system, were important but did not rise to the level of critical services.

The judge said state payments to cities, counties and schools would continue, as would enough money to keep Dayton's office and the Legislature running with at least skeletal crews. She ordered that the state keep welfare, food stamp and Medicaid health care programs operating.

Republican leaders either declined to comment on the ruling or said they hadn't seen it. Dayton praised it and said he still hopes for a budget deal.

"I would much prefer a fair and balanced budget solution, rather than a government shutdown," he said in a statement released by his office.