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Bills signed: State budget allows state workers to work

Gov. Mark Dayton looks at the 286-page health and human services budget bill Wednesday before he signs it into law. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota state employees gradually head back to work beginning Thursday, ending one of the longest state government shutdowns in American history.

A record-large $35.7 billion, two-year budget that legislators passed early Wednesday, and Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law a few hours later, provides the funds for 22,000 workers to resume their jobs and services to come back on line after a budget impasse forced the shutdown on July 1.

"We got the job done," Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said. "It is a tremendous relief."

Dayton also seemed relieved, but not thrilled.

"I'm not extremely happy with the budget I just signed into law," Dayton said, adding it was the best he could negotiate with Republicans who control the Legislature.

Dayton signed each bill Wednesday, then handed it to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to affix his signature, which made the bills law immediately.

"It gets Minnesota back to work," Dayton said about the state's new budget.

Money does not begin to flow into state agencies until Thursday, and state workers have three days to report to work. But Dayton said many agencies already are beginning to prepare to reopen by doing things such as firing up dormant computer systems.

"Everybody is geared up and ready to do," he added.

Dayton administration officials say it may take weeks for state government to fully recover from the shutdown, the longest in Minnesota history.

After nearly seven months in St. Paul, legislators finally passed the state budget, two months late, that nobody likes other than it ends a government shutdown. Many warn that it only will get worse.

"We came here with a $5 billion problem..." Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said about a budget deficit lawmakers faced early this year. "Do you think it is responsible for us to hand off our successors a $4 billion problem?"

Bakk said more budget woes will afflict legislators in the future. Republicans and Dayton say they plan to work on government reforms next year that will help future budgets.

While the final budget spends up to $5 billion more than many Republicans wanted, House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch said they were pleased.

"We were dealt a situation and I think we dealt with it the best we could," Zellers said moments after gaveling the special session to a close at 3:39 a.m. Wednesday.

Zellers and Koch both looked ahead, saying they want more reforms to shrink the size of government and make it more efficient.

"We've got lots more work to do next year," Koch said about.

The Tuesday night and early Wednesday work came in spurts, punctuated by hours of waiting for bill writing to be completed.

Republicans said little about the bills; Democrats generally criticized them.

Lawmakers passed nine budget bills, a measure funding public works projects and a bill that pays for outdoors, clean water and arts projects from a sales tax increase voters approved in 2008. They did not debate a plan to build a new Vikings football stadium, and it is not certain that Dayton will call a special session later this year to deal with that.

The Republican-controlled Legislature and Democrat Dayton faced a $5 billion deficit as they wrote the state's budget this year.

Republicans rejected Dayton's idea to raise taxes on the richest Minnesotans. Eventually Dayton accepted, with modifications, a GOP plan to borrow nearly $1.4 billion from schools (via a delay in state payments to schools) and selling bonds (to be repaid with money from a tobacco lawsuit settlement).

Democrats strongly argued that the borrowing concept is a terrible idea that will cost the state for years.

"Is this all there is?" Bakk asked. "We have been here since January and the best we can do is to borrow?"

Senate Tax Chairwoman Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said that the borrowing plan is better than raising taxes.

"It wouldn't be responsible to raise taxes," she said.

The state needs to slow its spending, she added. "Minnesotans have more government than they can afford."

Many state programs sustained cuts, despite a new budget larger than the one that ended on June 30. In a large part that is because state-funded health-care program costs are soaring, forcing cuts elsewhere across the budget.

Public education fared well in some ways, receiving a boost in per-pupil spending each of the next two years. That is countered by the school payments delays, a plan schools say will force them to borrow money.

Higher education, on the other hand, feels more pain. The University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems were cut 10.5 percent.

Most state agencies will sustain a 5 percent budget cut, although some cuts go deeper.

Cities across Minnesota waited until late Tuesday to learn that they will get the same state aid as in 2010, although that is less than they expected. Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis received the best news as the budget compromise allows them to keep Local Government Aid that Republicans wanted to ditch.

However, future city and county aid will be based on the lower 2010 levels than what had been planned. And aid checks they expected to received Wednesday will be delayed at least a week.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said that his health and human services bill spares Minnesotans who depend on the state for health-care assistance and sets up reforms that should save money for years to come.

Here are votes on budget bills (in most cases, Republicans favored the bills and Democrats opposed):

Public safety and courts, Senate, 57-7; House, 77-51.

Transportation, House, 71-56; Senate, 38-27.

Higher education, House, 71-57; Senate, 35-30.

Environment, Senate, 43-22; House, 71-57.

Jobs-economic development, Senate, 42-23; House, 76-50.

Legacy (clean water, arts, outdoors programs), Senate, 63-0; House, 98-30.

Taxes, House, 71-57; Senate, 37-27.

Bonding, House, 112-17; Senate, 53-11.

Health and human services, House, 71-57; Senate, 37-27.

Education, House, 71-56; Senate, 36-28.

State government, Senate, 40-24; House, 81-47.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.