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Budget stalemate: Courts ask courts to stay open in shutdown

ST. PAUL -- Optimism was in short supply around the Minnesota Capitol Friday, two weeks before a government shutdown could begin.

No high-levels budget discussions occurred, and none were expected this weekend after a Thursday disagreement between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders.

Preparations continued for a shutdown.

Attorney General Lori Swanson filed a petition with Ramsey County District Court asking that the judicial system be funded even if Dayton and lawmakers cannot agree on a budget before July 1.

"If the political branches cannot reach agreement to resolve the present budget impasse, this court should adhere to its precedent and ensure that Minnesota continues to have a functioning justice system," Swanson wrote.

As Minnesota prepared for a 2001 shutdown, that was avoided, a judge ordered the courts to remain open.

Soon after Swanson filed her petition, Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin of the 2nd Judicial District recused herself from the action and asked Chief Justice Lori Gildea of the Minnesota Supreme Court to appoint a retired judge to decide the courts' request.

Gearin scheduled a Thursday hearing to consider petitions Swanson and Dayton have filed asking to keep the executive branch partially functioning even without a budget.

The plan Dayton submitted to Gearin called for keeping more than a third of the executive branch's 38,500 employees on duty to carry out what his administration said were jobs vital to Minnesotans' life and safety.

Before a partial government shutdown in 2005, a retired judge decided what should remain open and Dayton asked that the same happen this year.

A shutdown is possible because Dayton and Republicans who control the Legislature remain at least $1.8 billion apart on a two-year budget. Without a budget enacted by July 1, or a temporary funding measure, the state will have no authority to spend funds.

Courts in other states basically have overruled their constitutions to allow limited funding to continue for law enforcement, prison guards, health-care for the poor and other services deemed critical. But a lawsuit is expected to be filed Monday claiming the state Constitution only gives the Legislature, with the governor's approval, the right to appropriate state money.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, is part of the challenge.

"The Constitution very specifically says only the Legislature can spend money out of the state treasury," Hutchinson said on a Senate GOP radio show.

Few in the Capitol expect all of state government to close on July 1.

"A government shutdown is an oxymoron," Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing said. "Government is too big; there is no way you can shut down government. It will not happen. Let's talk about a significant reduction in government services."

Indeed, Dayton asked the courts to keep 13,250 state workers on the payroll.

Newman said lawmakers are looking into a short-term funding bill "to keep government going while we settle our differences."

While legislative leaders and Dayton have been reluctant to talk about the short-term funding idea, known as a "lights on" bill, Howe said he thinks fellow Republicans could support it.

The most recent negotiation session went nowhere. Republicans Thursday said they would give up their proposals to cut taxes in several areas by $200 million and put that money toward programs Dayton said were underfunded in budget bills Republicans passed, and he vetoed, during the regular legislative session.

The governor said Republicans refuse to change their original plan.

"Their position is I have to agree entirely with them," Dayton said.

Howe said Dayton's rejection of the offer by saying it only moved the deck chairs on the Titanic insulted Republicans. "To just dismiss it summarily is not helpful."

Republicans were willing to give up tax cuts they feel are important, Howe added.

"Somebody needs to remind Gov. Dayton that he is the captain, and, by the way, we are headed to an iceberg..." Howe said. "He is the guy to can make a difference."

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