Fear of shutdown grows each day for state workers

Three weeks remain until a possible state government shutdown and Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP legislative leaders are no closer to a budget deal.

State employees will start receiving layoff notices in the mail as early as Friday. Many of the 36,000 employees are wondering whether they'll continue working in July, when the government will shut down if a deal isn't reached.

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Among them is Melanie Wurtzberger, a social worker at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. As the two sides disagree over taxes and spending, she worries how she'll make ends meet on July 1.

Wurtzberger and her husband, an electrical contractor, are covered by her health insurance, but he is in remission from cancer and the couple will have to pay $1,300 a month to continue their health coverage if the government shuts down. She said they're worried about draining their savings to pay their bills.

"Thinking about spending our entire savings on basic necessities of life are watching our dreams go down the drain."

"Being young newlyweds, we were actually saving that to try to plan for our future and our family," Wurtzberger said, "but thinking about spending our entire savings on basic necessities of life are watching our dreams go down the drain."

Wurtzberger is one of many state employees who are confused and worried about what will happen if state government shuts down. One unanswered question is who will continue to work after July 1. State agency heads are working on a list of essential employees who would be needed to ensure that the state continues to deliver vital services.

Before a partial government shutdown in 2005, the state asked a judge to decide which services should continue. State agencies haven't released their plans this year, but Dayton said more information could come soon, perhaps as early as next week.

"I don't know when the court process begins," Dayton said. "I'm not a lawyer and I don't know how the court will proceed to operate but once that does happen, it could be next week or the week after, but as soon as we have it formulated it will become public."

Another key question for state employees is whether they'll be eligible to cash out their vacation time and part of their sick time. Union contracts say the state must make those payments when an employee is laid off.

Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter declined to say whether those payments would be made. He said his agency is working on a shutdown plan but he wouldn't release any specifics.

"In the end, this is a question for the courts as to what services can be provided even without appropriations," Schowalter said. "This is a difficult legal issue and it needs a lot of consideration."

Schowalter couldn't say how much a shutdown would cost the state except to say it would be expensive.

Some things are known: State parks would likely close. Driver's license centers could be shuttered, and planning at K-12 schools and colleges and universities could be disrupted.

Officials with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities say they're intent on holding a fall semester even if there's a shutdown but it depends on whether they have access to tuition and reserve funds that are controlled by the state.

Outgoing Lakeville School Superintendent Gary Amoroso told MPR News last week that local school districts are also in budgetary limbo. Under state law, school districts must have a budget approved by June 30, but Amoroso said he still does not know how much revenue the district will receive from the state, which provides 80 percent of its budget.

"That's a challenge for us," he said.

This would be the first time state operations shut down since 2005. A partial government shutdown occurred that year and lasted nine days.

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