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Courts could decide shutdown impact

ST. PAUL -- The impact of a state government shutdown is in the hands of Minnesota judges.

State Attorney General Lori Swanson on Monday laid groundwork for them to become involved if the governor and legislators cannot agree on a budget before July 1. Courts are expected to accept the challenge, because without a judge's decision, government would need to shut down.

If all of government shuts down due to lack of a budget, Swanson argued in paperwork filed in Ramsey County District Court, "the life, health, safety and liberty of citizens would be profoundly and irreparably impacted."

Press Secretary Katharine Tinucci of Gov. Mark Dayton's office said the governor will file a petition to the court yet this week listing services he feels are so critical that they should be continued during a shutdown.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said she has called a legislative commission meeting for Wednesday to find out what Dayton wants to stay open.

"According to recent media reports, Gov. Mark Dayton's administration has been compiling 'a shutdown plan largely in secret,' and the details of these shutdown plans have yet to be publicly released," Koch said. "The lack of transparency by the Dayton administration is unacceptable. The citizens of Minnesota deserve to know who will be affected most by Gov. Dayton's decision to shut down state government."

In her document asking the courts to get involved, Swanson said that while on one hand, the state Constitution requires the Legislature to appropriate money before it can be spent, on the other hand, state constitutional officers are required to fulfill their duties, and money is needed to do that.

"The absence of funding may not eliminate the constitutional rights of five million Minnesota men, women and children," Swanson wrote.

A shutdown is being discussed because the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democrat Dayton have not agreed on a budget for the two years beginning July 1. Only agriculture programs have been funded, and even they may be hampered because other parts of state government handle some Agriculture Department fiscal matters.

There were no high-level budget talks on Friday, over the weekend or Monday, and on Monday night there was no word when Dayton and GOP leaders will meet again. Dayton wants to raise taxes on the highest-earning Minnesotans, while Republicans reject new taxes and do not want to spend as much as Dayton.

Swanson did not spell out what should remain open if a budget impasse continues, but gave some strong hints.

The state cares for nearly 1,300 mentally ill Minnesotans, Swanson said, and "without a state budget or court order providing for the continued care of patients, they would either have to be released or left unattended in state facilities."

Also, she said, about 9,000 prisoners need to be guarded. Another 20,000 offenders on supervised release in the community, including 1,200 high-risk criminals, need to be monitored by probation officers, the attorney general said.

The 616 sex offenders who have been committed to state hospitals are dangerous and likely to reoffend if not supervised, Swanson said. But they could be released from state care in a shutdown unless the court acts, she wrote.

More than 750 military veterans could lose care in the state's five veterans' home, Swanson warned.

The attorney general also warned that state troopers, criminal investigators and emergency management personnel may not be working.

More than 600,000 low-income Minnesotans, such as the elderly and disabled, receive state-funded medical care and could lose that without a state budget deal, Swanson wrote. That number includes Minnesotans in nursing homes.

While taxes are required to be paid even without a new tax law, the state may not be able to collect those taxes, Swanson said, "further jeopardizing the state's fiscal situation."

Even funding, such as for ag programs, that has been approved could be in danger because Minnesota Management and Budget runs some of the fiscal aspects of the programs ant MMB may not have funding. Also threatened are school funding and Local Government Aid for cities.

"The relief requested is limited and temporary in nature," Swanson wrote. "The relief sought would only permit the continued operation of the core functions of the government entities" as required by state and federal constitutions and courts.

There was no immediate indication about when the courts may take up Swanson's request.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.