Minn. government reopening after 20-day shutdown
Thursday, July 21, 2011
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota’s government is reopening for business after a nearly three-week shutdown closed state parks, laid off some 22,000 public workers and demonstrated the wide reach of state agencies.
Most state employees were told to start reporting to work at 7 a.m. Thursday, a day after Gov. Mark Dayton signed a budget deal that ended the nation’s longest state government shutdown in a decade. It also cost Minnesota millions in lost revenue.
Not all services will resume quickly, and the work backload is expected to be large, but the recalled workers will restart a slew of services from the lottery to enabling licensing for drivers and anglers.
Even horseracing enthusiasts will have their fun back because the shutdown, in one of many examples of the government’s reach, forced Canterbury Park horse track to close after state gambling regulators were laid off. It cost horse owners and jockeys more than $1 million in purses and put about 1,000 people out of work.
“I can’t say I’m jumping for joy, because the whole thing has been such a painful and unnecessary situation,” Randy Sampson, the track’s president and chief executive said.
Jim Schowalter, the state’s budget commissioner, said it will take longer to restart some state agencies than others because some deemed essential continued partial operations with court permission. He also predicted it would take weeks for agencies to work through paperwork backlogs.
Dayton said the budget he signed Wednesday was the best deal he could get. It resolved the Democratic governor’s long impasse with Republican lawmakers by delaying aid to schools and borrowing against future payments from a legal settlement with tobacco companies — both one-time fixes — rather than raising taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans, as Dayton had wanted.
Republicans were equally unhappy because the deal spends more than they wanted while deleting their proposals for banning funding for stem cell research and curbing public employees’ bargaining rights.
The shutdown closed all state parks and two horse tracks, suspended driver’s license exams and some services to the vulnerable, and even prevented some bars from purchasing alcohol. The state lost millions of dollars, including lost revenue from lottery sales, tax audits and state fees and concessions.
The full cost won’t be known for some time, Schowalter said.
Some of Minnesota’s state parks — one of the most visible casualties — could reopen for day use Friday with overnight camping as early as Saturday. But Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris Niskanen said the pace of reopenings could vary widely.
The parks have to be cleaned and checked to make sure they’re safe, Niskanen said. Some parks were damaged by an early July windstorm and may not open for two to four weeks, while other parks were struck by vandals. Garbage left by day visitors during the shutdown needs to be cleaned up.
“We really want to manage people’s expectations here,” Niskanen said. “These are not latchkey operations.”
Another widely missed DNR service — the online system for issuing fishing licenses — was back up and running Wednesday, he said.
The 26 historic sites and museums operated by the Minnesota State Historical Society will reopen Saturday. Most driver and vehicle services were due to resume Thursday.
Several state employees said they were glad to be returning to work, but dreading the backlogs. Alice Smith, 52, of St. Paul, who processes GEDs and transcripts at the Department of Education, said this was the hardest layoff of the three she’s experienced and it’s going to be hard catching up — both financially and with her workload.
“We’re not going to get any back pay,” she said. “It’s all going to be a struggle for a full month until we get a full paycheck.”
She helps support an adult daughter with disabilities and other relatives. During the shutdown, Smith said she went to a food bank when she needed help with groceries, but the shelves were bare.
“I’m relieved that it’s over, but I don’t really see what it was all about,” said Susan Lommen, 60, of Deerwood, whose husband, Guy, was laid off from his state job as a state lottery sales representative. “It seems like we’re right back where we started from, because there’s no resolution.”
Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski contributed to this report from Minneapolis.