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Shutdown ruling 'no soft landing'

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ST. PAUL -- Many Minnesotans would feel a state government shutdown, even though a judge is allowing more than a third of state employees to stay on the job.

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People stopping at a highway rest area or planning an excursion to a state park, forest or recreation area may be inconvenienced if a shutdown begins on Friday, but Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin of Ramsey County District Court ruled Wednesday that public safety and health programs would remain operating even if there is no state budget.

State troopers and prison guards would remain on duty, and most state-funded health-care programs would continue during a state shutdown. Local government payments would be made. Nursing homes would stay open. Colleges and universities would operate. Temporary assistance to needy families would continue.

But parks and most state child-care programs would close. Lottery tickets would not be available. The state's two horse-racing tracks would close. State highway construction would stop.

State officials are sorting out the ruling to see how far its impact will reach.

"This government shutdown is going to be difficult," said David Lillehaug, Gov. Mark Dayton's attorney in the case.

Lillehaug said Minnesotans will notice this shutdown, unlike a smaller one in 2005. "No one who reads that order will say there is any type of soft landing."

While Dayton and legislative leaders tried to work out a last-minute budget deal, Gearin released her order that provides for what she called "critical core functions" to keep operating.

"The failure to properly fund critical core functions of the executive and legislative branches will violate the constitutional rights of the citizens of Minnesota," Gearin wrote.

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.

School funds will continue in a shutdown, which school officials praised.

"We felt that as an association representing school districts, we needed to make the case that K-12 is, indeed, a core function," said Executive Director Bob Meeks of the Minnesota School Boards Association.

The governor was pleased that Gearin followed his recommendations.

"It appears that her order arrived at the same middle ground as my administration, and essentially agreed with my list of critical services that must continue," Dayton said in a statement. "I prepared that list based on my constitutional responsibility as governor to protect the lives and safety of the people of Minnesota."

Attorney General Lori Swanson sought Gearin's ruling to keep government operating because after today because most state agencies would have no authority to spend money. A new two-year state budget should begin Friday, but Dayton and lawmakers still were negotiating details Wednesday.

The impact of a shutdown would begin even before Friday.

"I've been told to close at 4 p.m. Thursday pending the negotiated state budget," said Phil Nasby, manager of Kilen Woods State Park near Lakefield.

People from others states driving in to Kilen may be blindsided by the closing.

The Department of Natural Resources, with 66 parks and six recreation areas, could lose $1 million a week during a shutdown. Among DNR impacts would be suspension of selling fishing, boating and other licenses, and thousands of camping reservations for the July 4 weekend would not be honored.

While licenses cannot be obtained, conservation officers will remain on duty to write tickets for those who do not have licenses.

"I'm just sending out a mass email to all our reservations," said Bill Hansen of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters near Tofte. "And we've posted something on our website. We're telling them to get their fishing license now online."

For days, state workers have been preparing for a shutdown.

Julie Quanrud, one of two employees at the Department of Labor and Industry at the Vocational Rehabilitation Unit in Bemidji, said she was told to clear out her office in preparation for a state shutdown. The rehabilitation unit provides assistance to injured workers and helps residents find employment.

"The expense of shutting down is astronomical," she said.

Also a shutdown, non-profit organizations that normally receive state payments may not get them, new driver's license tests may not be available and loggers would not be allowed to cut trees on state land.

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.

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.

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

Gearin's order could be appealed to a higher court.

Ana Anthony of the Worthington Daily Globe, John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune and Anne Williams of the Bemidji Pioneer contributed to this story.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which own the Bemidji Pioneer.

ddavis@forumcomm.com

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