Working For Budget, Preparing For Shutdown

By Andrew Tellijohn

Some Minnesota state department heads are preparing for the possibility of a government shutdown as Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders grow increasingly skeptical that they will reach a budget deal by their midnight Monday deadline.

That is good, former Natural Resources Commissioner Gene Merriam said, although work should have started sooner. He and other state leaders in 2005 went through something similar to what today’s leaders face, although that year only produced a partial shutdown because some areas of the state budget were approved before money ran out on July 1.

Minnesota Management and Budget, which coordinates planning among the various state departments, has not sent out any official correspondence urging state agencies to prepare for a shutdown, spokesman John Pollard said. But Dayton acknowledged Friday that some commissioners have taken it upon themselves to at least begin studying documents describing how predecessors dealt with the partial shutdown in 2005.

If Dayton and leaders reach no budget deal by midnight Monday, government continues to operate as is until July 1, when the current budget ends at midnight June 30.

Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr has taken a look at documents relating to the 2005 shut-down, but has not organized formal contingency planning, said Chris Niskanen, Department of Natural Resources spokesman.

“We, just like all other state agencies, want to see what happens on May 23, before we have any other discussions,” Niskanen said. “We are really hanging our hat on things getting done.”

While many agencies would not comment on shutdown work, it became apparent in the past several days that preparations have varied.

Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh said on “Almanac: At the Capitol” that her organization would consider filing a lawsuit to ensure funding for transit is kept intact during a shutdown.

Contingency plans are constantly ongoing at the Corrections Department, where the safety of inmates and the general public is at stake, spokesman John Schadl said.

“We are involved in operations that impact public safety,” he said. “We always have contingency plans to keep essential personnel on post, regardless of what comes up.”

“People are asking what is going on, people are concerned,” the Administration Department’s Ryan Church said. “Assuming we do not have a budget by the end of the regular session we are going to be more deeply involved.”

Full-scale planning for a shutdown would begin Tuesday if a deal is not reached before session ends, Dayton said. MMB’s Pollard added that the agency works year-round on contingency plans for any number of unforeseen problems, ranging from pandemics to employee strikes.

On Friday, Dayton said that he has not talked to anyone about a shutdown and knows of none of his staff who has.

Several officials who worked for Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2005 said preparing for a shutdown while also keeping up with other day-to-day work was difficult.

Preparations statewide should have started “several weeks ago,” Merriam said.

Merriam, now president of the Freshwater Society, recalled the July 4 weekend that year, when lines of citizens backed up at campgrounds around the state as budget negotiations were taking place during a special legislative session at the Capitol.

DNR officials did not know whether they would be able to allow campers access to state parks until late June 30, he said, adding that calls those angry campers made to their legislators helped prompt passage of the environment budget, allowing state parks to remain open.

The agency had spent two months preparing for how it would deal with a possible shutdown, Merriam said.

“Whether it comes to pass or not there is a significant cost in allocation of resources just to get ready for it,” Merriam said.

Tom Hanson, Pawlenty’s deputy chief of staff in 2005, said one thing that might make preparations easier this year is that many of the necessary procedures are in place, both due to the 2005 shutdown and from “continuity in government” planning instituted under Pawlenty during the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic concerns.

One thing that might be more challenging, however, is the number of agency budgets that have yet to pass – including one that funds state workers who read and draft bills and assist decision makers, added Hanson, now an attorney and lobbyist with Winthrop and Weinstine.

Dana Badgerow, former commissioner for the Administration Department, said she is confident the administration will take the necessary steps to keep the state functioning if the session ends without a budget.

“The state government does a phenomenal job of contingency planning” for situations such as labor strikes, disasters and shutdowns, Badgerow said.

There will be challenges in determining which services and what employees are seen as essential.

“That’s what is in the eye of the beholder,” said Badgerow, now Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota president. “Police fire and safety are a given. Then you start getting into gray areas.”

Alice Seagren, commissioner of the Education Department in 2005, recalled that when her department decided what employees were essential – and thus allowed to work during the shutdown – it boiled down to one person who was in charge of making sure money got to the state’s school districts and another who investigated reports of minors being maltreated.

“It was a very serious time,” she said. “We hoped the government would not shut down and that there would be some resolution. I hope for that this time too.”

Badgerow said these situations are stressful for all involved and added that she is glad to be working at a nonprofit instead of facing another looming shutdown. She is impressed with the competence of the cabinet Dayton appointed, however, and said she hopes to see a resolution that renders these preparations moot.

“There are many days between now and when you have to pull that switch,” she said. “It is a long time until July 1.”