FAQ on Minnesota's state government shutdown

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the state government shutdown in Minnesota. Latest update: July 13, 2011

On Friday, July 1, 2011, most state government functions were closed for business, after Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP legislative leaders could not agree on a new two-year budget plan.

Thirteen days after lawmakers failed to come to a budget agreement, Gov. Mark Dayton will continue his tour through Rochester and Albert Lea to talk about health care and the government shutdown with Minnesotans.

No talks are scheduled for today. MPR's Tom Scheck reports that representatives of the state's employee unions will meet with Dayton tonight.

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Only a few groups are scheduled to come before the Special Master today, including Richard Thompson, owner of Midwest Weed Harvesting Inc., a company contracts with the Department of Natural Resources to keep state waterways clear of weeds. In his petition, Thompson argues permits for weed management should be given out during the shutdown.

Q: Why is the state going through a government shutdown?

A: Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature are at odds over $1.8 billion in state spending for the upcoming two-year budget cycle. The governor has proposed raising taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans to support more spending in the coming biennium, but Republicans have rejected Dayton's plan. The Legislature passed a $34 billion budget with no tax increases, but Dayton vetoed it.

The Minnesota Constitution requires appropriations before the state can spend any money, and so far, only funding for the Department of Agriculture has been signed into law.

For services to continue at all other agencies and departments, Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature needed come up with a spending agreement by midnight on June 30, the start of the new fiscal year, but they didn't. On July 1, roughly 22,000 state employees were laid off.

Q: Which government services are continuing during the shutdown?

A: For the most part, Gearin agreed with Dayton's definition of government's "critical core functions." Broadly, they are:

• Basic custodial care for residents of state correctional facilities, regional treatment centers, nursing homes, veterans homes and residential academies and other similar state-operated services.

• Maintenance of public safety and immediate public health concerns.

• Provision of benefit payments and medical services to individuals.

• Preservation of the essential elements of the financial system of government.

• Necessary administration and supportive services, including but not limited to computer system maintenance, Internet security, issuance of payments.

Q: How did the government decide which services to continue?

A: First, agencies compiled and submitted a list of what they considered critical services to Minnesota Management and Budget, which then made recommendations to the administration.

Dayton subsequently submitted a petition to the Ramsey County District Court, as did Attorney General Lori Swanson, who petitioned for a broader array of services to stay open. The ultimate decision rests in the hands of the courts.

Enter Gearin and Judge Bruce W. Christopherson, who in a separate ruling agreed that the state's judicial system should continue to function during a shutdown.

In her ruling, Gearin also appointed retired state Supreme Court Justice Kathleen Blatz as Special Master to hear and make recommendations to the court about funding issues.

Q: Will laid-off state employees collect unemployment compensation? What about their health care?

A: The state's employees are getting health care benefits. However, they've decided to forgo vacation, compensatory and severance pay. That means the state will save some cash, employees will go back to work after a government shutdown with their benefits intact, and they are eligible for unemployment benefits immediately.

Q: Who can claim unemployment benefits, and how?

A: Unemployment insurance claims are being processed and payments are being made during the shutdown. Anyone -- private sector employees who've lost their jobs during a shutdown and government employees who've been laid off -- can apply.

Most state employees started applying for benefits the week of July 4. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) has created a schedule to let people know when they should apply. Here's a link. You can apply for benefits online.

Once you've applied, you'll have to wait a week before benefits kick in. So, for instance, if you applied the week of July 4, your first "compensable" week will be July 10, and you can request payment for that week starting the week of July 17. That means your first benefits won't be doled out until July 19 or 20.

Weekly benefits equal about half of an individual's gross weekly income to a maximum of $578, according to DEED.

Also worth noting: DEED's job search centers are not open during the shutdown.

Q: Will government employees who are paid with federal dollars continue to work?

A: Not necessarily, according to MMB. Though the shutdown doesn't affect programs and positions supported with federal dollars, the department warns that disruption of other state services could prevent these employees from working.

Q: What about K-12 education?

A: Gearin's ruling holds good news for public K-12 schools: They'll continue getting paid throughout the government shutdown, and that means schools will continue to function as normal and teachers will continue to get their salaries.

That said, there could still be some hiccups. For instance, new teachers will not be able to get licenses, and the one-fifth of Minnesota teachers who need to renew their teaching licenses will not be able to, either, said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

If the stalemate stretched on long enough, the backlog of applications could be significant. The approval process for each district's property tax levy could be delayed as well, says Kyte.

Like other state employees, it appears that Minnesota State Colleges and Universities teachers will continue to get paid and get health insurance, and that schools will otherwise operate as normal, said Don Larsson, president of the Inter Faculty Organization.

That's because MnSCU has its own money reserves -- enough to get schools through the summer and into the school year.

Q: What about aid to cities and counties?

A: Local governments are getting state aid, which is welcome news for cities that are slated to get $265 million in payments on July 20. For instance, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said the payments will ensure that police, firefighters, parks and libraries in St. Paul will remain operating during a shutdown.

Counties were not specifically singled out in Gearin's ruling, but the Association of Minnesota Counties believes the order applies to them, too.

Q: Will nonprofits with government contracts or grants continue to work?

A: Many nonprofit organizations have concerns about funding, and many have petitioned Special Master Kathleen Blatz to recommend their state and federal funding continue during the shutdown.

Groups that have petitioned Blatz range from affordable housing advocates to child care organizations concerned that state support has been cut off as a result of the budget impasse.

As of Wednesday, July 6, Blatz had made no recommendations, but she is expected to throughout the hearing process. Check the Ramsey County District Court site for a list of groups that have submitted petitions and for updates on her recommendations.

Q: Will background checks continue?

A: After numerous petitions from groups that worried they would not be able to hire new employees because background checks had been suspended, Gearin ruled on July 7 that staff who work in the Department of Human Services licensing division should be called back to work. For instance, the Minnesota Hospital Association argued that hospitals would not be able to hire new doctors until background checks were reinstated.

Q: What about road repair?

A: Unless it's an emergency repair, road construction is a non-critical government services. State rest stops have also been closed throughout the state.

Q: I take Metro Transit to and from work every day. Will I still be able to get around?

A: Metro Transit is an arm of the Metropolitan Council, and gets about one-fifth of its budget from the state. As a result, Metro Transit bus and rail, Metro Mobility, Transit Link and other transportation services are operating using consumer fares and reserve funds. But those dollars are only expected to last for six to eight weeks, according to Council spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge.

In the absence of a budget, the Council has already started the process of implementing fare and service adjustments, based on the $109 million cut in the state's general fund commitment to transit that's currently included in the Legislature's transportation bill. The process could take up to six months, says Kollodge.

Another note for University Avenue commuters in Minneapolis and St. Paul: The Met Council will continue construction on the Central Corridor Light Rail project.

Q: Are health services threatened?

A: The short answer is no. Nursing homes, facilities that treat the disabled, veterans' hospitals and other facilities that rely on government support are open and funded.

In her ruling, Gearin argued that, because health programs like Medicaid use federal dollars, the state should fulfill its obligations to the federal government. If not, the state could be "subject to severe federal fiscal sanctions and, indeed, could be banned from continued participation in the programs."

The same applies to food stamps and welfare programs, MPR reported.

Q: What if I need to get my driver's license or registration processed or renewed during a shutdown?

A: Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) will technically be closed for business, according to draft guidance developed by the Department of Public Safety.

However, a computer system used by the police force to access driver data is operating, and that means a limited number of DVS activities could continue. For instance, the offices will continue to renew driver's licenses and registration tabs. You can get a new license plates if there's inventory at your local driver's license office.

But if you turned 16 on July 2, you won't be able to get a new license because driving exams are suspended. The same goes for newcomers to the state.

Furthermore, if you renew your license during the shutdown, you will only get paperwork confirming the renewal; photo identification will be printed after the shutdown ends.

Finally, DVS will not be able to register commercial vehicles and there will be no car inspections.

Q: Will law enforcement officers still be on the beat?

A: The State Patrol and 911 dispatchers have not been laid off. Furthermore, key emergency contacts that provide 24-7 communication and coordination will remain in place.

Q: Are state parks closed during a shutdown?

A: Unfortunately for all those summer vacationers, yes: The Department of Natural Resources closed parks at 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 30. The DNR is promising refunds to those who had reservations during the shutdown, MPR's Stephanie Hemphill reported.

While the DNR does not recommend it, visitors can hike into parks during the day.

No hunting, fishing, and boating licenses are being processed. Read more on the DNR's own FAQ page.

Q: I love the Minnesota Zoo. Will I still be able to visit during a shutdown?

A: Judge Gearin approved the Minnesota Zoo's appeal to stay open during the shutdown on Saturday, July 2.

Gearin initially closed the zoo since she deemed it to not be an essential service. The zoo closed Friday, July 1 and a small staff stayed on to care for the animals.

Gearin authorized the zoo to reopen, based on the fact that it operates on its own earned revenue. It reopened Sunday, July 3 at 9 a.m.

Q: I filed my taxes late. Will I still get my tax refund during a shutdown?

A: Refunds will not be processed or issued during a shutdown. That said, the MnDOR site warns that "all tax laws and deadlines would remain in effect during a shutdown." If you still owe taxes, you still have to pay them because the department will continue depositing them.

Q: A shutdown will save the state money, right?

A: Actually, Elizabeth Dunbar reports that a shutdown could cost the government millions in lost productivity, delays and financial penalties. Here's her story and handy list of potential costs of a shutdown.

Q: I get government support to pay for child care for my kids. Will those dollars still be available during the shutdown?

A: Federal funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which includes some child care assistance, will continue to be administered throughout a government shutdown. And according to a ruling from Gearin on July 13, so will state aid. MPR's Madeleine Baran has the story here.

Q: I'm a state employee. Are there any resources to help me financially throughout the shutdown?

A: In addition to unemployment benefits, state employees can take advantage of a few other forms of assistance. AFSCME has opened food shelves across the state. MAPE is working with a local credit union to help unemployed workers get loans during the shutdown. Learn more here.

Meanwhile, U.S. Bank will give laid off government workers a one-month reprieve from loan payments. MPR has more here.