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Minnesota Shutdown Hits Vulnerable First

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
July 2, 2011

Minnesotans are on their second day without a functioning state government as the Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers still cannot agree on how to fill a $5 billion budget hole.

Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, wants to raise income taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans. But Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, say that’s unacceptable. The two sides missed a July 1 deadline to hash out a deal, so most state offices and services shut down — except for a few critical ones like police, the courts and Medicaid.

Minnesota’s second shutdown in six years was striking much deeper than the partial 2005 shutdown. It took state parks and rest stops offline, closed horse tracks and made it impossible to get a fishing license. But it also was hitting the state’s most vulnerable, ending reading services for the blind, silencing a help line for the elderly and stopping child care subsidies for the poor.

Some Can’t Hold On For Long

The shutdown was rippling into the lives of people like single mom Brenda Grundeen, who says come Tuesday, she may have to quit her job to watch her three kids because their day care center is closed.

“I’m trying to make ends meet. I’ve got to pay my mortgage,” she says. “I’m really close to being in foreclosure. If I miss a mortgage payment, it’s really going to hurt.”

Sonya Mills is a 39-year-old mother of eight facing the loss of about $3,600 a month in state child care subsidies. Until the government closure, Mills had been focused on recovering from a May 22 tornado that displaced her from a rented home in Minneapolis. Now she’s adding a new problem to her list.

“It just starts to have a snowball effect. It’s like you are still in the wind of the tornado,” said Mills, who works at a temp agency and was allowed to take time off as she gets back on her feet — but after the shutdown also has to care for her six youngest children, ages 3 through 14, because she lost state funding for their day care and other programs.

With most government functions closed indefinitely, 22,000 state workers are not getting paychecks. Diana Rae Evensen, who works at the budget office, says if the shutdown lasts more than a week, her already precarious financial situation will become unmanageable.

“My husband and I had to declare bankruptcy this spring,” she says. “And my oldest son and his family had to move in with us, because he was unemployed for about six months.”

Evensen says political leaders don’t seem to realize all the pain they’re causing. She says they need to forget about the state’s polarized political climate, check their egos at the door and hammer out a budget compromise so everyday Minnesotans can resume normal life.

Aid Organizations Stumble

The shutdown halted nonemergency road construction and closed the state zoo and Capitol. More than 40 state boards and agencies went dark, though critical functions such as state troopers, prison guards, the courts and disaster responses will continue.

Nonprofit groups helping the state’s poor have already been hit hard. Some closed their doors immediately, while others continued services, at least for now. Some were looking at layoffs, said Sarah Caruso, president and CEO of Greater Twin Cities United Way, which funds 400 programs serving poor people. She said the impact will depend on how long the shutdown lasts.

“If we go well beyond that two-week window, I think then we will start seeing much more significant closure of programs to support the vulnerable, and the long-term financial viability of some of these agencies will really be called into question,” she said.

The stoppage also suspended some programs for the blind and visually impaired, including a radio reading service run by volunteers and training for blind people who are learning to walk with a cane. Bonnie Elsey, director of the state’s Workforce Development Division, said a vocational rehabilitation program that places people with disabilities in jobs or schools was halted.

Minnesota food pantries scurried to make sure they would still get 700,000 pounds of food — about 30 percent of their total volume — in the next two months through a federal program. Nearly a million pounds already in warehouses were also put on hold by the shutdown. Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, said the federal program’s operation depended on a single state employee working in a data management system. Moriarty said the employee had later been called back to work.

The shutdown also idled a state hotline set up to help seniors and their caregivers find services, housing options, help with Medicaid and Medicare insurance and more. A call to the 800 number Friday got a recording saying callers could leave a message.

Parties Keep The Vitriol Flowing

Fearful of voter anger, both parties blasted each other for Minnesota the shutdown

GOP Chairman Tony Sutton called Dayton a “piece of work” and accused him of inflicting “maximum pain” for political reasons.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin laid the blame on Republicans, saying they drove the state to a shutdown to protect millionaires from tax increases sought by Dayton.

The Alliance for a Better Minnesota, a left-leaning group supportive of Dayton, plans to run weekend radio ads in three popular vacation areas blaming Republicans for the impact of the shutdown, including closed state parks. The group also debuted a “shutdown shame” website.

The shutdown has been a slow-motion disaster, with a new Democratic governor and new Republican legislative majorities at odds for months over how to eliminate the state budget deficit. Dayton has been determined to raise taxes on high-earners to close the deficit, while Republicans insisted that it be closed only by cuts to state spending.

Even after the shutdown looked like a certainty, Dayton and Republicans did not soften their conflicting principles. Dayton said he campaigned and was elected on a promise not to make spending cuts to a level he called “draconian.”

In northern Minnesota, 200 miles from the Capitol, Eagle Scout candidate Dylan Burger was with his troop at Itasca State Park when they had to pull up their tent stakes and cut short a weekend camping trip. The 17-year-old says the political rancor in St. Paul that led to this shutdown is frustrating.

“I just think it’s sad that they can’t work it out,” he says. “It’s like two little children fighting over a goal. They just can’t work together and make a final outcome that will benefit the state.”

Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio contributed to this story, which contains material from The Associated Press. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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