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State layoff notices sent as questions dominate

ST. PAUL -- Dayton administration officials said there were more questions than answers Friday about a potential state government shutdown as more than 40,000 workers received layoff notices.

Gov. Mark Dayton's Cabinet met Friday afternoon, without the governor present, to discuss a shutdown. But three weeks until a shutdown would occur, there was no movement toward agreeing to a state budget and few answers to questions about how a shutdown would affect state employees and other Minnesotans.

The problem is that without a budget deal by July 1 "most of state government doesn't have authorization to spend," Commissioner Jim Schowalter of Minnesota Management and Budget said.

Without money, most of state government would be shuttered.

As required by their contracts, layoff notices went to 36,000 unionized state workers and 6,000 who work on Minnesota State Colleges and Universities campuses. But nearly 60,000 workers could be directly affected by a shutdown.

"It is a grim reminder of a deadline that is just 20 days away, and the reality of what a lack of compromise and agreement will mean not only for those thousands of hard-working state employees, their families and their communities, but also for the important services they provide to Minnesotans in every corner of our state," Dayton said in a statement.

Friday's layoff notices assured state employees that they would be paid for work through June 30. It also let them know that if they are laid off, they may file for unemployment insurance benefits.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed its budget plan before the constitutional deadline to adjourn on May 23. Dayton vetoed the budget bills, saying he wanted $1.8 billion in new taxes on rich Minnesotans to avoid deeper budget cuts. Republicans refuse to raise taxes.

Without a budget deal in place by July 1, or an agreement to continue under the current budget, much of government will shut down.

Cabinet members heard on Friday about a hiring freeze across state government. Agencies could request "emergency exceptions" to hire people, but only in specific instances such as those affecting the health and safety of Minnesotans.

Teams in all state agencies are working on shutdown preparations, but Dayton Chief of Staff Tina Smith said reaching a budget deal remains her office's No. 1 priority.

Shutdown preparations include asking the court system to allow some people to be paid in a shutdown, even though the state Constitution requires the Legislature to appropriate money before it can be spent. Those could include people such as prison guards and other public safety workers.

Schowalter said agencies are working to determine what jobs they deem so critical that courts should allow them to continue to work. But he said no date has been set to submit the request to the courts.

When asked what she would say to people who have reservations in Minnesota state parks over the July 4 weekend, but don't know if they will be open, Smith said she would suggest they call their legislators and urge them to find a budget deal.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.