Families, child care services lose out in judge's ruling

Child care shutdown
Tiffany Woeste of Blaine is a single mother of two preschoolers, Evan, 4, left, and Austin, 3. The state subsidy that pays for the boys' child care will stop if there's a government shutdown. She doesn't have a backup plan and would have to come up with the money herself. "My entire paycheck will go to daycare," Woeste said.
MPR Photo/ Sasha Aslanian

Today's ruling by a judge on essential services is a tough blow for families, and could have far-reaching effects across Minnesota.

The losers range from low-income children who receive subsidized daycare, construction workers, to even horseracing fans and the Minnesota Zoo, which may have to close during its busiest season. Judge Kathleen Gearin ruled that childcare payments are not essential services.

The ruling will have rippling effects for Brenda Grundeen of North St. Paul and other families who rely on childcare subsidies.

Grundeen a single mom, said she may have to quit her job working for a program that helps disabled kids so she can take care of her three children.

"I'm trying to make ends meet. I've got to pay my mortgage. I'm really close to being in foreclosure," Grundeen said. "If I miss a mortgage payment, it's really going to hurt."

Earlier this month, Grundeen broke down sobbing when Ramsey County sent her a note informing her that state childcare subsidies would stop if state government shuts down.

The spectre of a July 1 shutdown has even gotten to her oldest child.

"He's freaked out. He's 10, he has autism, and he's just stuck in this loop and rigid in his schedule," said Grundeen. "He's asking me, 'If they have all this tax money, why can't Minnesota figure out how to spend it?' "

Judge Gearin acknowledged the further effects of halted government in her ruling. She wrote that not funding child-care assistance could cause extreme hardship, force low-income parents to leave their jobs, and increase the amount of people on public assistance. But she ruled that these consequences can be avoided if the governor and Legislature strike a deal.

Gearin alternately displayed empathy and sternness throughout her 19-page order, as she maintained that she wasn't to blame. The judge instructed the state to fund "critical core functions" during a shutdown, and said payments to cities and schools should stay on schedule.

"She could have gone for an extremely draconian model, but I think she went for somewhere in the middle," said Jeff Spartz, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties. Although Gearin did not specifically mention county program aid in her order, Spartz thinks the order implies the payments will be coming.

Spartz thinks many county functions, such as the jail, public health and social services, will be considered "core functions" that are federally mandated for the state to continue. He said the judge's order leaves him cautiously optimistic about weathering the shutdown.

"It's an anxiety reducer. I wouldn't say it's an anxiety eliminator," said Spartz.


Gearin's ruling did nothing to reduce the anxiety of Minnesota Zoo officials, who have warned that they will close Friday short of a budget deal or a judge's intervention. Gearin directed the zoo to continue feeding the animals and maintain reasonable staffing to ensure the animals can't escape, but not much beyond that. The judge acknowledged that closing the zoo would result in "significant harm," given that the Independence Day holiday and the summer are its busiest times of the year.

Gearin even weighed in on an upcoming meet at Canterbury Park. The judge ruled that horseracing is not a core function of government.

Construction projects across the state would also come to a halt. The Central Corridor light-rail line under construction is managed by the Metropolitan Council, which is not a state agency. But for contractors working on the line, there's still great of uncertainty.

While the Met Council has told contractors to keep working on the project, the flow of cash to fund construction concerns Richard Copeland, CEO of Thor Construction, which is doing concrete work for the project.

"It's a business decision that we have to make," Copeland said. "They say they should be able to process. Sure, they're going to say that, because they probably believe they will be able to keep operating. But we just don't know the extent of the debacle that will take place if the government shuts down. So we're very concerned." Minneapolis attorney Dean Thomson represents the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota and other construction-industry groups. He said a government shutdown will likely leave contractors without jobs.

"If these projects can't continue, then a great number of people will be out of business, and the summertime is when they get to make hay, and earn money," Thomson said. "If we're in a budget crisis, it seems counterintuitive to put people out of work so they won't have any revenue, which they can pay in taxes."

Thompson says if the projects come to a standstill, he expects contractors to sue the state so they can continue to work.

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