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Judge keeps some executive branch work open in Minnesota budget shutdown

ST. PAUL -- A judge this morning ordered part of the Minnesota executive branch to remain operating even if there is no budget in place Friday.

Failure to fund the executive branch, even for a short time, "nullifies these constitutional offices, which in turn contravenes the Minnesota Constitution," Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin of Ramsey County wrote.

She appointed former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz as "special master," who will make specific recommendations about what would be funded. Gearin retained the final say.

Gearin's order, which could be appealed to a higher court, told Commissioner Jim Schowalter of Minnesota Management and Budget to "timely issue checks and process such funds as necessary to pay for the performance of the critical core functions of government. ..."

Gearin attached to her order a list of suggestions from Gov. Mark Dayton as to what should remain funded when the rest of government shuts down. He recommended that more than 13,000 of the executive branch's 38,500 workers stay on the jobs.

The judge said state aid paid to local governments and schools should continue in a shutdown but not necessarily road construction projects. She would keep the Minnesota Zoo closed along with the state's two horse-racing tracks.

Most child care programs would be suspended, but temporary assistance to needy families would continue.

Prison guards will remain on duty, along with workers at nursing homes, veterans' homes and the like. Public safety and public health workers will keep working, Gearin ruled, apparently keeping the State Patrol on the highways and Health Department investigators at work.

Also, state computer systems and "essential elements of the financial system of the government" will continue.

Gearin's order came an hour after the governor and legislative leaders sequestered themselves this morning for what was described as a final run at making a budget deal to avoid a Friday government shutdown.

On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said that today is the last chance for action since a special legislative session is needed to approve any deal. And with 200 lawmakers scattered around the state, scheduling a special session before the Thursday night deadline must happen today.

"I'm always optimistic," Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said as she walked into the governor's office with House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

Dayton and legislative leaders refuse to discuss the progress of negotiations. However, there have been no indications that they are close to an agreement and several hints they remain far apart.

They are discussing nine budget bills to fund various parts of state government. Only agriculture programs have been funded, but if there is a government shutdown even some of those programs may not have access to their funds.

A shutdown is possible because after Thursday most state executive branch agencies will have no authorization to spend money. However, a judge is allowing the courts to remain open and legislative offices will stay open into July.

Going into negotiations, Democrats and Republicans had many differences in how to spend the state's money, but an even bigger difference about how much to spend.

Dayton proposes a $35.8 billion budget for the two years beginning Friday, fueled in part by a $1.8 billion tax increase on Minnesota's highest earners. Republicans reject the tax and pledged to limit spending to $34 billion.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the News Tribune.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.