Minnesota Government Shuts in Budget Fight

Chicago – Minnesota began what is expected to become the broadest shutdown of state services in its history early Friday, after Republicans and Democrats there failed to agree on how to solve the state’s budget woes in time for the new fiscal year.

And so, on the eve of a holiday weekend, residents were likely to find the state’s parks, historical sites and the Minnesota Zoo closed, hunting and fishing licenses no longer being issued, and that state’s lottery system and racetracks unavailable. Minnesota’s 84 major rest areas along highways were closed. Thousands of state employees were expected to be sent home without pay, and contractors were to be told to walk away from hundreds of road construction projects already underway.

Since early this year, politicians in St. Paul have been locked in a battle over how to work out an expected a $5 billion budget deficit under a divided government. Republicans, who took control of both chambers of the Legislature after elections last year, called for cuts and reining in spending to the $34 billion that the state expected to take in over the next two years. But Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat who was also elected in 2010, called for collecting more in income taxes from the very highest earners to spare cuts in services to the most vulnerable residents.

While private negotiations went on, day after day, and the Friday deadline approached, it seemed as though the argument had never really shifted much at all.

“This is a night of deep sorrow for me because I don’t want to see this shutdown occur,” Mr. Dayton told reporters late Thursday, not long before his spokeswoman confirmed that a shutdown of services had begun. “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.”

Into the evening, both sides sought to sway public opinion on a shutdown that is certain to affect Minnesotans’ daily lives, even as protesters (demanding a solution to the impasse) gathered outside the Capitol. Republican lawmakers held what some described as “sit-ins” urging the governor to call a special session so some state services might be temporarily kept running, even if negotiations took longer. Democrats, meanwhile, accused the Republicans of “political theater” and called for compromise.

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“I’m willing to compromise,” Mr. Dayton said. “I’m willing to meet halfway. But I’m not willing to give up what I believe I was elected by the people of Minnesota to do.”

For days, leaders on both sides have met under what Mr. Dayton’s spokeswoman described as a “cone of silence” about details of their progress. But by Thursday — a day before the new budget year was to begin — state workers were beginning to frantically prepare for a shutdown.

Numerous states’ new budget years begin on July 1, but Minnesota now finds in an unwanted spot: the rare state facing a shutdown, a prospect certain to bring political fallout and mounting tension. The last such standoff in Minnesota came under an entirely different set of leaders (including Tim Pawlenty, the former governor turned Republican presidential candidate) in 2005, but involved the shutdown of far fewer services and lasted a matter of days.

“It’s a very sad day for Minnesota,” said Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, which is not expected to close. “It’s a state that had a well-earned reputation for being well governed, where, at the end of the day, politics were done in a fair and efficient manner. And it’s now on the cusp of ungovernability. There’s a new ethic here that compromise is weakness.”

The list of state services expected to close is lengthy: all sorts of state offices including dispatchers in the Twin Cities who monitor traffic jams and accidents and try to keep rush hours moving along. Certain crucial services will stay open, such as state patrol work, prison operations, courts, and schools.