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Minnesota colleges taking it a day at a time as shutdown looms

ST. PAUL - The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is gearing up for a government shutdown.

Or not.

A Wednesday emergency meeting of the 54-campus system's board of trustees resulted in a resolution supporting shutdown preparation. But officials said that at the same time, colleges and universities around the state need to be ready to continue running during the summer term that is under way.

"This is a one-day-at-a-time deal," said Laura King, the system's chief financial officer.

College presidents and key aides were asked to immediately begin shutdown preparations, setting many other duties aside.

MnSCU will send notices to 6,000 of its 15,000 workers on Friday saying they could be laid off if Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature do not agree on a budget by the time the current one expires on July 1. The notices are required by union contracts.

King said that MnSCU has enough money to remain open through the fall term, but a state agency that controls the money could be shut down July 1.

MnSCU officials will ask the Dayton administration to allow Minnesota Management and Budget to write checks to workers and to pay bills if there is a shutdown.

"MMB is currently in discussions with MnSCU to analyze possible options and authorities for service delivery in the event of a state shutdown," MMB Commissioner Jim Schowalter said. "Ultimately, any determination of critical services will be determined by the court system, including what services may continue to be provided by MMB."

The commissioner said shared services such as his department writing MnSCU checks works well most of the time, but "a possible state shutdown raises difficult legal and process issues that we are working to address."

The impacts of a potential shutdown go beyond getting access to the money.

President Richard Davenport of Minnesota State University, Mankato, told the MnSCU board that colleges in Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota are playing on students' fears of a shutdown and recruiting potential Minnesota students.

MnSCU officials say they have no way of knowing how many students are looking elsewhere because of the budget situation, but they take it seriously.

"This is potentially a four- to six-year impact," MnSCU Trustee Dan McElroy said, because a student who goes to a school elsewhere likely will not return to a Minnesota school.

A summer shutdown would directly affect 67,000 students now in class, Davenport said, but also could drive away students who need to know their financial aid status in the summer. With a shutdown, no one would be available to figure out financial aid.

King said she did not know how much money would be available for the college system, but was sure it would be enough to run schools through the fall term.

About 400,000 students are expected in MnSCU schools this fall.

There was no progress Wednesday in agreeing to a new state budget.

Following a 90-minute meeting with Republican leaders, Democrat Dayton said he will not sign a bill spending $34 billion in the next two years, Republicans' upper limit. His latest offer was for a $35.8 billion budget.

Legislators ended their regular session on May 23 without a budget deal. Republicans approved budgets, without Democratic-Farmer-Labor support, and Dayton vetoed them. Only a measure funding agriculture programs is in place.

Current funding runs out for most programs June 30, setting up a July 1 shutdown.

"We're going to keep meeting, we are going to keep working," said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel, R-Edina.

Dayton said he, too, is willing to keep meeting, but said he is not optimistic about avoiding a shutdown unless Republicans show a willingness to compromise.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or