Judge to Minnesotans: ‘Flood’ leaders with shutdown stories

The judge deciding what parts of state government can run during a shutdown, which enters its 13th day Wednesday, says legislators and the governor need to hear how it affects Minnesotans.

Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin of Ramsey County said that is especially true for people who live outside of the Twin Cities.

“I cannot believe the legislators and governor are getting the information I am getting,” Gearin said during a Tuesday hearing about whether loggers should be allowed to continue operations on state land during the shutdown.

She said loggers and others affected by the shutdown “should be flooding” their legislators and the governor with stories about the impact. She said that if the shutdown lasts businesses will close and people who need state services will be forced to do without.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he agrees with Gearin that “the people of Minnesota need to make their voices heard.” Republican leaders, meanwhile, said they have heard from Minnesotans and they at least want a temporary budget so state government can reopen while talks continue on permanent spending bills.

Gearin extended a court order to allow loggers to cut trees and move logs from state lands until she holds another hearing on the issue Monday, but she made it clear she is inclined to stop the operation.

The judge, who is deciding all shutdown-related cases, said the logging case is similar to those of Minnesota’s two horse-racing tracks. In those cases, she did not allow state regulators to work, which closed the tracks.

In logging case, three Koochiching County business owners asked the courts to allow them to continue operating even though Department of Natural Resources regulators were off work due to the shutdown. A northern Minnesota judge late last month gave them temporary permission to continue logging, but the Supreme Court transferred the case to Gearin.

Gearin became the shutdown spending czar when Democrat Dayton and Republicans in charge of the Legislature could not agree on a budget by the time the old one ran out on June 30.

Without a budget, Attorney General Lori Swanson asked Gearin to allow some funding to continue for state programs deemed critical. Gearin reluctantly agreed just before the old budget ended.

The shutdown forced 22,000 state employees out of work on July 1, two-thirds of the Dayton administration’s workers. Other executive branch offices remain open, as do the courts and Legislature.

Even with some of state government operating, it is the biggest and longest Minnesota government shutdown and the longest in at least two decades anywhere in the country.

Dayton and legislative leaders have met for less than two hours since the shutdown began, and no meetings were held Tuesday and none is scheduled Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said Dayton refused her request to take her and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, to a St. Cloud event on Tuesday. She said that would have given the three leaders time to talk about budget issues.

Dayton said he told Koch that was willing to meet with the GOP leaders when he returned from St. Cloud, but by late afternoon had not heard back from them.

Both sides say they are waiting on the other to make the next move to solve the budget impasse that caused the shutdown.

Gearin was animated during the logging hearing, accusing lawmakers and Dayton of failing to do their jobs. That left her the task of deciding what would be funded without a budget.

“I don’t want this case … I won’t want any of them,” she said. “I want the governor and Legislature to do their jobs.”

A state representative said that whenever the Legislature returns to session, which Dayton says he would call only when a complete budget deal is reached, he will introduce a bill requiring all lawmakers to forfeit pay and health insurance premiums whenever the state is in a shutdown.

“I believe that if a legislator is suffering the same pain as the people that his or her decisions are affecting, that will spur them to reach a quicker resolution and a successful end to a legislative session,” Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said. “I think it’s necessary to put legislators on a more realistic track.”

Of the state’s 200 lawmakers, 62 have told the Legislature’s fiscal staff to withhold their pay.

The specific issue in front of Gearin was whether to extend or cancel Judge Charles LeDuc’s Koochiching County District Court order temporarily allowing loggers Kit Hasbargen, Keith Hasbargen and Dale Erickson, all of Birchdale, to continue working on state land. While they brought the case, more than 120 other logging companies also were affected.

LeDuc had scheduled a hearing on making his order permanent for Monday, but before that could be held the state Supreme Court sent the issue to Gearin.

The Ramsey County judge said LeDuc “is in a tough position” because his home county depends on the timber industry, but she told the loggers’ attorney, “you are going to be stuck with my interpretation, at least until it can be appealed.”

Gearin said loggers involved in the case could lose their companies, as could those in related businesses such as sawmills and the paper industry.

Attorney Steven Shermoen, representing the loggers, was not happy that the case was being heard in St. Paul.

“What is core and critical in the Twin Cities is not core and critical in Koochiching County,” he told Gearin. “In these northern counties, logging is everything.”

Even after acknowledging logging’s importance, Gearin said, “I’m skeptical” that allowing DNR personnel to continue its logging supervision fits into her limited definition of an essential service that should be continued without a budget.

Shermoen said the DNR does little inspection when logs are removed, after being cut last winter. So, he said, there is no harm done if loggers can continue to work without an inspector. Any problems can be dealt with after the shutdown, he added.

Minnesota Forest Industries estimates that if a shutdown lasts 10 weeks, more than 600 jobs will be lost and state and local governments will lose $6 million in tax revenue.

Erickson said, like other loggers, he already has paid the state tens of thousands of dollars for timber he may not be able to access. More than half of his 24 employees would immediately lose their jobs if logging stops, and the rest would be out of work soon afterwards, he said.

“It’s a sorry day when I go to court for the right to go to work,” Erickson said.

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