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Social services beg for money in Minn. shutdown

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Kathleen Blatz
Kathleen Blatz, the appointed special master of the state government shutdown presided over hearings at the Minnesota Judicial Center. Blatz listened to petioners argue to have funds appropriated toward specific causes during the government. The second round of hearings took place on Tuesday, July 5, in the Minnesota Judicial Center.
AP Photo/Jim Gehrz, Pool

With 10 beds and a waiting list 21-people long, the Emily Program had planned to open a second in-patient facility for people with serious eating disorders later this month. Minnesota's government shutdown has thrown those plans in doubt.

The private, St. Paul-based treatment program was waiting on a July 18 inspection by the licensing division of the Department of Human Services. The division closed in the shutdown, and "without that last step in the licensing process, the program will be unable to open," said Jillian Lampert, director of licensing for The Emily Program.

"It's not a comment on the value of your services. It goes to the limits of the court's power."

Lampert was one of several dozen people who pleaded Tuesday before a court-appointed "special master" for a continuation of state funding or services during the shutdown. In the second day of such hearings, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz heard pleas from advocates for the homeless and indigent and sexual assault victims, as well as child care providers, police officers and prosecutors, hospital officials and more. The hearings have been a lesson in the deep and wide-reaching tentacles of state government.

The shutdown that started Friday resulted from a budget standoff between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders. Dayton wants to raise income taxes on the state's wealthiest residents to provide more money for social services and public education. Republican lawmakers oppose any tax increase. The two sides met briefly Tuesday but reported no progress.

Until a budget deal materializes, state spending decisions fall to Blatz, who stepped down as the state's chief justice in 2006. A state district court judge has ordered programs essential to life, health and public safety to continue during the shutdown, and Blatz must make recommendations to her on which programs qualify. As she presided over the parade of need, Blatz repeatedly reminded those before her that she had limited power.

"It's not a comment on the value of your services. It goes to the limits of the court's power," she said, trying to downplay the expectations of two representatives from the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, a treatment and counseling center that holds a number state contracts to provide social services.

The center focuses on "prevention and advocacy," which Blatz suggested wasn't essential to the public's health and safety. With no "disruption," she said, "We're limited until they figure things out across the street."

Many requests came from people and groups worried services would shut down because they couldn't get state licenses, background checks and inspections required by law. Ben Peltier, legal counsel for the Minnesota Hospital Association, said hiring at its 45 member hospitals has halted because state background checks required by law aren't available.

Large hospitals can probably shuffle existing staff for a few weeks, but some 65 smaller hospitals that typically treat 25 or fewer patients could end up short-staffed, Peltier said. "The only option is to ask people to work longer hours, and they won't always do that," he said.

"We're limited until they figure things out across the street."

A similar dilemma faces police departments, whose new hires must obtain a state license from an office that's closed. Chief Daniel Hatten of the Hutchinson Police Department said he's currently down three patrol officers on his 22-officer team, and he's had to swap several specialized investigators back into patrol shifts.

"It's not just a fatigue factor," Hatten said. "It's the ability to deliver the protection at a level not only that the community expects but also from a basic safety perspective."

Dayton's legal team asked Blatz on Tuesday to expand the list of critical services and recommend funding be continued for special education, mental health and chemical dependency programs, child care assistance and other services to the vulnerable.

Meanwhile, prospects for a breakthrough between Dayton and Republicans were uncertain after they talked for only about an hour Tuesday following a four-day break over the holiday weekend. Republicans want to cap state spending the next two years at $34 billion, the total amount of revenue the state is projected to collect, while Dayton seeks to augment that with more than $1 billion in new revenue.

House Majority Leader Matt Dean said in an interview that the shutdown had angered Republican lawmakers and made them less likely to compromise. Members of the House GOP caucus were willing to bend last week to avoid a government closure, but now that it's happened, they're returning to their earlier position on a firm limit on state spending, he said.

"They're very angry and frustrated," said Dean, the second-ranking House  Republican. "So I think it's more difficult today than it was last week."

Also Tuesday, two of the state's political veterans - former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale - launched an independent commission to resolve the deadlock. The panel will be chaired by two former state lawmakers and aims to float a proposal by the end of the week for breaking the deadlock.

One current Republican lawmaker said it was a bad idea. First-term Republican Sen. Dave Thompson said he expects the commission to recommend tax increases of some kind, a strategy he doesn't think is wise for the economy.

Asked whether he would support a budget compromise to spend $35 billion over two years instead of $34 billion, the number Republicans want, Thompson said, "I don't believe so, no."