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No End in Sight as Minnesotans Grapple With State Shutdown

Saturday, 02 July 2011 05:04 By Monica Davey, Truthout | News Report

St. Paul - The state of Minnesota screeched to a stop on Friday.

State parks were barricaded, and campers, Boy Scout troops and everyone else were sent on their way.

Heading into a holiday weekend in a state that savors its summers outdoors, licenses for fishing, hunting, trapping, boats and ATVs were unavailable for purchase. And all around the State Capitol - the place where all the troubles began - the streets were eerily empty and official buildings locked, plastered with hand-taped signs that offered a gentle explanation: "This building is closed until further notice due to the current state government service interruption."

Right up to the midnight deadline on Thursday, Minnesotans, who have been known to boast of their professional, efficient government, had held out hope that the state's divided leadership could reach a deal on how to solve a looming budget deficit. But in the end, the fundamentally different fiscal approaches of the Republicans and the Democrats here did not change, and Minnesota began its broadest shutdown of services in state history with no end in sight.

"Now we're just waiting and hoping this will be short-lived," said Mark Crawford, the manager at Lake Maria State Park who on Thursday had to inform scores of campers that they needed to pack up and leave and then, on Friday, became one of 22,000 state employees out of work without pay. "We'll have to change our lifestyle for a little bit," said Mr. Crawford, who is 60 and has worked in the parks for 35 years.

Since 2002, there have been six such shutdowns around the nation, including one in 2005 in Minnesota. Some lasted a few hours, others for days. But this time, the two sides appear far apart, the anger is palpable, and no one is confident of a quick resolution. By Friday evening, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, said no negotiations had been scheduled for the holiday weekend.

"There's a lot of concern about whether this is going to be for a weekend or whether it will stretch into August," said Liz Kuoppala, the executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, which, along with a long list of other groups (on behalf of people with H.I.V., battered women, mentally ill Minnesotans) pleaded on Friday before a retired State Supreme Court justice who has been designated to consider exceptions to the state financing freeze. "Part of the hardest part for people in the homeless shelters and elsewhere," she said, "is not knowing what's going to happen and what's going to be paid for and what's not."

In a way, the standstill here may have begun last November, when the voters turned power in St. Paul upside down and picked leaders whose ideas about budgets, even during the campaign, could not have been more different from one another.

Republicans, who took control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in almost four decades, called for reining in spending as a way to pull the state's budget, facing a $5 billion deficit, into control. But Mr. Dayton, who became the state's first Democratic governor in 20 years, called for collecting more in income taxes from the very highest earners to spare cuts in services to Minnesota's most vulnerable residents.

As the state's new budget year approached, the opposing sides had negotiated privately, day after day, under a polite "cone of silence," in which no one shared a peep about what the other side was asking for.

All vows of silence - and politeness - had vanished by Friday after talks fell apart and Minnesota found itself the only state in the nation closing down. At least 45 states had agreed to spending plans by Friday, officials at the National Conference of State Legislatures said, and the handful of states still finishing their work did not appear at risk of shutdown.

The entire episode left some Minnesotans baffled, posing questions to anyone they came across on Friday. Were highway rest stops open? (No.) Were courts open? (Yes.) Was the Minnesota Zoo open? (No.) Was the local swimming pool open? (Yes; only state functions were affected.)

Even as the state found itself with no approved budget, certain state services deemed essential never stopped. State police patrol and prison operations went on, as did payments to the state's schools and payments for food stamps, welfare benefits and some programs for the disabled.

Other social services programs, though, including assistance for child care and some services for the blind, had received no such exemption as of Friday, officials said. Nor did the state's lottery, racetracks, or about 100 road construction projects that were already under way around Minnesota. Torn-up patches, marked only by lonely orange cones, were common sights on Friday.

But even within state agencies, officials found themselves sorting through what must keep going and what ought not. Most prison guards stayed put, for instance, but the state Department of Corrections said it was ending family and volunteers' visits and yoga classes for prisoners and - if the shutdown lasts long enough for service to lapse - prisoners will see no more cable television.

For many here, though, the largest question was how Minnesota's leaders might ever reach some accord.

For all the talk of compromise and suggestions by Republicans at one point on Thursday that a deal might be close, it appeared by Friday that the central philosophical divide - between holding the line on spending and raising taxes to maintain services for those most in need - had never really been crossed. Each group retreated to its own side.

"This is a night of deep sorrow for me because I don't want to see this shutdown occur," Mr. Dayton told reporters shortly before the midnight deadline on Thursday. "But I think there are basic principles and the well-being of millions of people in Minnesota that would be damaged not just for the next week or whatever long it takes, but the next two years and beyond with these kind of permanent cuts in personal care attendants and home health services and college tuition increases."

That evening, hundreds of protesters demanding a solution to the impasse gathered outside the Capitol, and Republican lawmakers, describing themselves as discouraged and disheartened, held what some described as a "sit-in" in their chambers urging the governor to call a special session so some state services might be kept running temporarily.

"We're talking about runaway spending that we can't afford," Kurt Zellers, the Republican House speaker, said. "And we will not saddle our children and grandchildren with mounds of debts with promises for funding levels that will not be there in the future."

David Maki-Waller, 41 and a resident of Northfield, was also thinking of his children on Friday, but of a more immediate problem: how to keep the four of them (15, 11 and 8-year-old twins) entertained over the long weekend now that the family's reservation to camp at Frontenac State Park - secured months ago - had been canceled along with everyone else's.

"They've been asking me for a Plan B," Mr. Maki-Waller said. "What are we going to do this weekend? I don't know. Everyone wanted to go camping."

Lori Moore contributed reporting from New York.

This article "No End in Sight as Minnesotans Grapple With State Shutdown" originally appeared at The New York Times.


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No End in Sight as Minnesotans Grapple With State Shutdown

Saturday, 02 July 2011 05:04 By Monica Davey, Truthout | News Report

St. Paul - The state of Minnesota screeched to a stop on Friday.

State parks were barricaded, and campers, Boy Scout troops and everyone else were sent on their way.

Heading into a holiday weekend in a state that savors its summers outdoors, licenses for fishing, hunting, trapping, boats and ATVs were unavailable for purchase. And all around the State Capitol - the place where all the troubles began - the streets were eerily empty and official buildings locked, plastered with hand-taped signs that offered a gentle explanation: "This building is closed until further notice due to the current state government service interruption."

Right up to the midnight deadline on Thursday, Minnesotans, who have been known to boast of their professional, efficient government, had held out hope that the state's divided leadership could reach a deal on how to solve a looming budget deficit. But in the end, the fundamentally different fiscal approaches of the Republicans and the Democrats here did not change, and Minnesota began its broadest shutdown of services in state history with no end in sight.

"Now we're just waiting and hoping this will be short-lived," said Mark Crawford, the manager at Lake Maria State Park who on Thursday had to inform scores of campers that they needed to pack up and leave and then, on Friday, became one of 22,000 state employees out of work without pay. "We'll have to change our lifestyle for a little bit," said Mr. Crawford, who is 60 and has worked in the parks for 35 years.

Since 2002, there have been six such shutdowns around the nation, including one in 2005 in Minnesota. Some lasted a few hours, others for days. But this time, the two sides appear far apart, the anger is palpable, and no one is confident of a quick resolution. By Friday evening, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, said no negotiations had been scheduled for the holiday weekend.

"There's a lot of concern about whether this is going to be for a weekend or whether it will stretch into August," said Liz Kuoppala, the executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, which, along with a long list of other groups (on behalf of people with H.I.V., battered women, mentally ill Minnesotans) pleaded on Friday before a retired State Supreme Court justice who has been designated to consider exceptions to the state financing freeze. "Part of the hardest part for people in the homeless shelters and elsewhere," she said, "is not knowing what's going to happen and what's going to be paid for and what's not."

In a way, the standstill here may have begun last November, when the voters turned power in St. Paul upside down and picked leaders whose ideas about budgets, even during the campaign, could not have been more different from one another.

Republicans, who took control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in almost four decades, called for reining in spending as a way to pull the state's budget, facing a $5 billion deficit, into control. But Mr. Dayton, who became the state's first Democratic governor in 20 years, called for collecting more in income taxes from the very highest earners to spare cuts in services to Minnesota's most vulnerable residents.

As the state's new budget year approached, the opposing sides had negotiated privately, day after day, under a polite "cone of silence," in which no one shared a peep about what the other side was asking for.

All vows of silence - and politeness - had vanished by Friday after talks fell apart and Minnesota found itself the only state in the nation closing down. At least 45 states had agreed to spending plans by Friday, officials at the National Conference of State Legislatures said, and the handful of states still finishing their work did not appear at risk of shutdown.

The entire episode left some Minnesotans baffled, posing questions to anyone they came across on Friday. Were highway rest stops open? (No.) Were courts open? (Yes.) Was the Minnesota Zoo open? (No.) Was the local swimming pool open? (Yes; only state functions were affected.)

Even as the state found itself with no approved budget, certain state services deemed essential never stopped. State police patrol and prison operations went on, as did payments to the state's schools and payments for food stamps, welfare benefits and some programs for the disabled.

Other social services programs, though, including assistance for child care and some services for the blind, had received no such exemption as of Friday, officials said. Nor did the state's lottery, racetracks, or about 100 road construction projects that were already under way around Minnesota. Torn-up patches, marked only by lonely orange cones, were common sights on Friday.

But even within state agencies, officials found themselves sorting through what must keep going and what ought not. Most prison guards stayed put, for instance, but the state Department of Corrections said it was ending family and volunteers' visits and yoga classes for prisoners and - if the shutdown lasts long enough for service to lapse - prisoners will see no more cable television.

For many here, though, the largest question was how Minnesota's leaders might ever reach some accord.

For all the talk of compromise and suggestions by Republicans at one point on Thursday that a deal might be close, it appeared by Friday that the central philosophical divide - between holding the line on spending and raising taxes to maintain services for those most in need - had never really been crossed. Each group retreated to its own side.

"This is a night of deep sorrow for me because I don't want to see this shutdown occur," Mr. Dayton told reporters shortly before the midnight deadline on Thursday. "But I think there are basic principles and the well-being of millions of people in Minnesota that would be damaged not just for the next week or whatever long it takes, but the next two years and beyond with these kind of permanent cuts in personal care attendants and home health services and college tuition increases."

That evening, hundreds of protesters demanding a solution to the impasse gathered outside the Capitol, and Republican lawmakers, describing themselves as discouraged and disheartened, held what some described as a "sit-in" in their chambers urging the governor to call a special session so some state services might be kept running temporarily.

"We're talking about runaway spending that we can't afford," Kurt Zellers, the Republican House speaker, said. "And we will not saddle our children and grandchildren with mounds of debts with promises for funding levels that will not be there in the future."

David Maki-Waller, 41 and a resident of Northfield, was also thinking of his children on Friday, but of a more immediate problem: how to keep the four of them (15, 11 and 8-year-old twins) entertained over the long weekend now that the family's reservation to camp at Frontenac State Park - secured months ago - had been canceled along with everyone else's.

"They've been asking me for a Plan B," Mr. Maki-Waller said. "What are we going to do this weekend? I don't know. Everyone wanted to go camping."

Lori Moore contributed reporting from New York.

This article "No End in Sight as Minnesotans Grapple With State Shutdown" originally appeared at The New York Times.


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