Judge who oversaw 2005 shutdown explains 'essential' services

If DFL governor Mark Dayton and the Republican controlled legislature can't agree on a budget by the end of this month, Minnesota will be forced into a government shutdown. But the state can't shut down entirely, so a court would have to decide which functions of state government are essential.

The last time that happened was in 2005, and the court appointed retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Ed Stringer to make those determinations. Justice Stringer spoke with MPR's Morning Edition about the process.

Cathy Wurzer: What counts as an essential state function?

Justice Stringer: First of all, there's no roadmap for it. It's just here's the law, is it core, is it critical? And it's more a guttural feeling: Does this person or this agency do something that is critical to the health and safety of the citizens of the state? Is a life at stake? Is health at stake? Is property at stake? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out. It's all arguable, it's all debatable but in the end you have to make a decision and that's what I did.

Wurzer: You mentioned before we went on air that an individual argued for bus schedules for visually impaired people. Some people might say really? Did you fund that?

Stringer: Yeah. The bus was the only way this individual could connect with the outer world. If she didn't know the bus schedule then she was not going to be able to get out. I considered that to be a critical service.

Wurzer: Give me an example or two of something that you considered non-essential.

Stringer: One service I deemed not essential was the parks and the rest areas. I didn't consider those to be anyone's life, safety or health to be at risk if those were closed. As a matter of fact I got a very nice note from an owner of a cafeteria in one of the small towns up on I-35 thanking me for closing the rest areas because it brought people into her restaurant. So a little here, a little there.

Wurzer: What about all the people who came before you? You must have seen people from every stripe and every agency and nonprofit group.

Stringer: Over the period of about two weeks, I think 50 or so hearings. It involved people from all over the state coming in and expressing concern, some of them just saying here's what's going on up in my corner of the state and please just be sure we're not hurt. The problem is I was scheduled to have surgery on a torn Achilles tendon right in the middle of the hearing, so the surgical team while I was out put a cast on me that had red and white stripes and then around the top was a blue bunting with white stars. I was always concerned that the petitioners coming in would think, 'Who is this guy who has his foot up and is going to decide my fate?'

Wurzer: Did you consider getting this job an honor or a burden?

Stringer: It was a fascinating experience and I truly would not have missed it. It all ended on July 13, I think when the Legislature came in. Maybe they decided that anything is better than this guy in the second floor of the State Capitol making decisions for us. But I think in the end it worked.

Wurzer: Would you do it again?

Stringer: No. Thank you very much. It's not that I would turn my back on the work, but I just don't do that anymore.

(Interview transcribed by MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar.)

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