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Dayton on shutdown: Better than GOP budget

Gov. Mark Dayton says on Wednesday that a short government shutdown is better than accepting a Republican budget that he said cuts too many programs Minnesotans need. (Don Davis / Forum Communications)

ST. PAUL - Gov. Mark Dayton wants a court to keep more than a third of Minnesota state employees on the job even if state government shuts down on July 1.

While he said that it was with a "heavy heart" that he asked a court to allow some spending even without a state budget, the Democratic governor added that a shutdown is preferable to a Republican-passed state budget.

In court documents filed Wednesday, Dayton recommended suspending many state services if the state has no budget when the current one ends on June 30.

"I consider virtually all services provided by the state to be essential, and all of them have been established by previous governors and legislatures to serve and benefit people throughout Minnesota," he said, adding that the state Constitution does not allow the state to continue normal operations without a budget.

After meeting with Republican leaders late Wednesday afternoon, Dayton said he still would like to resolve budget differences in the next two weeks, and another meeting is planned Thursday. GOP leaders say they will present their budget plan in a new way to Dayton today, but refused to tell reporters if they would make any changes to the budget proposal they passed before the regular legislative session ended on May 23. Dayton vetoed most of the budget.

"A temporary shutdown, painful as it would be, is not equivalent to the kind of catastrophes that would be ongoing that would occur if I acceded to this budget," Dayton said of the Republican spending plan.

"Some things are worth standing up and fighting for," he added.

Dayton says the Republican plan could eliminate too many programs, especially those that provide health-care aid to the state's elderly, poor and disabled. Republicans say their plan increases spending in those areas from the current budget.

Republicans refuse to consider spending more than $34 billion in the next two years. Dayton wants to spend $35.8 billion and insists on new revenue; his preferred new money would come from an income tax increase on the top 2 percent of Minnesota earners.

The budget deadlock prompted Dayton's Wednesday court filing that asked a judge to approve spending on critical programs.

The governor suggested that Ramsey County District Court keep state troopers on the road, guards in prisons and poor Minnesotans receiving health-care payments. On the other hand, without a state budget in place on July 1 the state would close parks, suspend the state lottery and stop payments to public schools.

Dayton's proposal would keep 12,350 state workers on the job out of the 35,800 executive branch employees.

Courts also would remain open under Dayton's plan. Legislators will make their own decisions on a shutdown, and leaders said they lean toward a reduced legislative staff being on duty but not a total legislative shutdown.

Commissioner Jim Schowalter of Minnesota Management and Budget said Dayton recommends that only "critical life safety" programs continue because he feels those are the only ones that would be allowed under the state Constitution and previous court rulings.

The first court shutdown hearing has been set for June 23 in St. Paul. The governor asked that the court appoint a former Supreme Court justice, Kathleen Blatz or James Gilbert, to decide what state service may continue to operate.

The governor's request to the courts was for minimal services to continue, with the most emphasis placed on human services programs ranging from treating sex offenders to continuing health-care programs for the poor, disabled and elderly. In all, the Department of Human Services would keep 5,165 people on the payroll.

He suggested that the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system remain open. It has enough money saved up to run through the fall term, but needs court-authorized financial support from Minnesota Management and Budget.

While MnSCU funds would continue under the Dayton plan, payments to public school districts would not.

During the legislative commission's Wednesday meeting, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, criticized Dayton for keeping his official residence open but not sending money to schools.

"It is a state asset," Schowalter responded about the St. Paul governor's home. "It is not going to operate at maximum capacity."

School payments would not be paid, Schowalter said, because they are not "critical life safety" issues.

The Dayton plan would allow minimal building and grounds maintenance at state facilities.

Some Republicans joined a health-care lobbyist in saying that Dayton is playing politics.

"The intent appears to be to have an immediate, strong impact of the shutdown to create the greatest possible pain and resulting pressure on the Legislature to resolve this dispute," lobbyist Tom Lehman wrote to health-care groups.

Dayton strongly denied that is his motivation.

Like Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said he does not think a government shutdown is necessary because time remains to negotiate a deal.

In the meeting Zellers and other GOP leaders held with Dayton, no progress was reported but Zellers said Republicans will present Dayton with their full budget proposal in a spreadsheet format to make it easier to compare the GOP and Dayton plans.

"It's really just about both sides putting all their cards on the table," Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said.

Dayton asked the court to order that he and legislative leaders bring in a mediator to help resolve their budget differences. Republicans leaders already have rejected a similar request.

Dayton said he has five priorities during a shutdown:

-- Provide basic care in correctional facilities, regional treatment centers, nursing homes, veterans' homes and other state-operated facilities.

-- Maintain public safety and react to serious health concerns.

-- Continue benefit payments to individuals.

-- Preserve the essential state financial system.

-- Provide only necessary administrative support.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.