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.”

DNR announces 25-year plan

The Department of Natural Resources wants to do more to connect Minnesotans to the outdoors in the next 25 years.

The department also wants to buy more land to expand its parks and trails services and to do more to take care of what it already has, according to a plan released Monday.

Reaching other Minnesotans is important, the document says, to make them better natural resources stewards, the report adds.

The report to legislators outlined, in general, how the department would like to spend $1.3 billion it should receive in the next 25 years via a three-eighths of percent sales tax that voters approved in November of 2008. Known as the Clean Water Land and Legacy Act, the tax splits money among various outdoors-related programs and the arts.

Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr made the announcement at the Capitol, with natural resources chairmen Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.

The report did not spell out particular parks, trails or other facilities that could be affected by the fiscal infusion.

New DNR commissioner wants to avoid arrogance

The new Minnesota Department of Natural Resources commissioner wants to make sure the agency does not appear arrogant.

“I will not stand for arrogance,” Tom Landwehr said Thursday, shortly after new Gov. Mark Dayton announced his pick.

Landwehr, who just left a lobbying position, said that Dayton had mentioned an arrogance problem, but he needs to talk to his new boss to hear the details.

“Tom’s mandate from me is to bring out the best in the agency and all of its people,” Democrat Dayton said.

The research biologist and conservationist said that surrounding himself with the right people will be his first job, right alongside starting to figure out how a $6.2 billion budget deficit will affect his department.

Dayton named Landwehr commissioner of the massive department that does everything from regulating hunting to managing forests. Senators must confirm him if he is to stay in office.

Landwehr

Landwehr worked for the DNR in the 1980s and soon became the agency’s wildlife manager and later its Wetland Wildlife Program leader. He has been director of the Minnesota and Iowa chapter of Ducks Unlimited and was No. 2 in the Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota Nature Conservancy chapter.

While working for the conservation groups, he lobbied the Legislature.

Dayton said no agency directly affects the lives of more Minnesotans than the DNR.

A key Republican lawmaker said Landwehr is a good pick, although not the person a Republican governor would have selected.

“He is a strong appointment,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, the House natural resources committee chairman. “He will be good to work with. He certainly is not only a professional in the arena, but very much interested in the outdoor area issues. … He hunts and fishes and enjoys the outdoors.”

McNamara has a Monday appointment to get to know Landwehr better, but said he expects to be able to work with the commissioner on issues important to Republicans such as finding ways to help business get permits quicker and reduce regulations.

Landwehr said he understands the importance of expanding mining in northeastern Minnesota and other business-oriented changes. State law restricts what he can do, he said, but he does plan to do what he can to halve the time it takes the DNR to issue permits and to take other actions.

“It is just going to be critical that we find ways to make mining acceptable,” said the new commissioner, whose department considers approving new mines.

Landwehr, who said he and Dayton will be in northwestern Minnesota next week, plans to talk to people around the state affected by the DNR to discover what changes may be needed. However, he added, overall the department appears well run.

He said he only expects some personnel “tweaks.”

One change he wants is more use of technology, such as computers, to speed the time it takes to serve customers. As an example, he talked about a Web site that allows Michigan residents to get well permits immediately.

Once “we have time to catch our breath next summer,” Landwehr said, he will turn his attention to improving DNR’s customer service.

Dayton noted Landwehr’s insider’s knowledge and outsider’s perspective of the agency.

Landwehr, who has a wildlife management master’s degree, served seven years on the Shoreview City Council.

DNR veteran and outsider to lead the agency

A research biologist and conservationist will head the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Gov. Mark Dayton named Tom Landwehr as commissioner of the massive department that does everything from regulating hunting to protecting the environment.

Landwehr worked for the DNR in the 1980s and soon became the agency’s wildlife manager and later its Wetland Wildlife Program leader. He has been director of the Minnesota and Iowa chapter of Ducks Unlimited and was No. 2 in the Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota Nature Conservancy chapter.

While working for the conservation groups, he lobbied the Legislature.

“By bringing together all those with a stake in the future of our state’s resources, I hope to show that sound conservation and vital communities are a natural combination,” Landwehr said. “We need to have a Department of Natural Resources that works for all Minnesotans.”

Dayton noted Landwehr’s insider’s knowledge and outsider’s perspective of the agency.

“I believe that Tom Landwehr has the years of experience in resource conservation and management, as well as 17 years of service in the DNR, to bring strong leadership to that vitally important agency,” Dayton said. “No other agency of state government affects as many Minnesotans’ lives directly as the DNR. At its best, the agency is viewed as a wise steward of our state’s natural resources for the benefit of all our citizens and for future generations. Tom’s mandate from me is to bring out the best in the agency and all of its people.”

Landwehr, who has a wildlife management master’s degree, served seven years on the Shoreview City Council.