Minnesota shutdown stirs debate over who gets paid

While thousands of Minnesota employees go without paychecks because the state government is shut down, many lawmakers are still being paid. And the list of workers whose services are deemed "essential" includes the governor's housekeeper and his personal chef.

As the shutdown entered its second full week Monday, with no end in sight, politicians and public employees traded accusations over who's getting paid, who isn't and why.

"None of them should be getting paid," said Mike Lindholt, a Department of Transportation maintenance worker idled by the shutdown. "If you don't do your job, you don't get paid. That's how it is for most people."

The political leaders whose budget dispute caused the shutdown are still entitled to collect their pay, and more than half of them are. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican Senate majority leader have both declined their checks, as have some rank-and-file lawmakers of both parties. But many others are still collecting checks, including the Republican House speaker. "I would like to be treated just like every other state employee," said Republican Carla Nelson of Rochester, one of 14 state senators who is refusing her salary until the impasse is resolved. "I thought it was the right thing to do for myself and my constituents."

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State lawmakers earn $31,140 a year, which is paid in monthly installments. Because the Legislature is part-time, some members have other jobs. For others, it's their only source of income.

The shutdown began its 11th day Monday, keeping 22,000 state employees at home without pay. The impasse has halted 100 road projects, closed 66 state parks, barricaded numerous highway rest stops and cut off many services. In that time, Dayton and GOP leaders have met just twice to discuss their differences.

As of midday Monday, no further budget negotiations were scheduled. Minnesota is the only state in the nation that has not approved a new budget this year.

The shutdown started July 1 after Dayton and lawmakers failed to enact a new budget by the start of the state's two-year spending cycle. Dayton wants to eliminate a projected $5 billion budget deficit with a mix of spending cuts and new revenue from taxes or other sources. Republicans insist on fixing the problem with spending cuts alone.

Rep. King Banaian, a St. Cloud Republican, decided to keep taking his paycheck and blamed Dayton for the shutdown.

"We're still working, just as other essential employees are. I guess we're kind of essential to getting things done," he said. "I feel we're ceding too much authority to the governor if we link whether we get paid to whether or not he accepts our budget."

Forty-eight out of 134 House members deferred their pay - 28 Democrats and 20 Republicans.

Of the 14 senators who declined to receive pay, 11 are Republicans and three are Democrats. The Senate normally has 67 members but has a vacancy after the June death of a senator. Two other Republicans and one Democrat notified the Senate payroll office too late to withhold July pay but declined pay after that.

The long-term effect on state employees isn't clear. After an eight-day shutdown in 2005, the administration struck a deal with unions that allowed workers to use vacation or sick pay to supplement their lost time. But this latest shutdown has already persisted for longer, and no one knows if a similar arrangement will be made when it's over.

About two weeks before the shutdown, Dayton announced that he would stop taking his $120,000-a-year salary if the government had to close its doors. At the time, the governor said "it would be terribly wrong" to accept pay. Republican Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch quickly followed suit.

Of the 40 full-time employees in Dayton's office, half are idled by the shutdown. Neither the House or Senate has released any workers yet. Both chambers are paying lawmakers and employees with cash reserves. Legislative employees are likely to be laid off if the shutdown continues and those reserves start to dwindle.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers did not immediately respond to a question about his decision to keep accepting pay. Some lawmakers said they are taking the pay out of personal necessity.

"I don't have savings I can fall back on, and I don't have a second job to fall back on," said Sen. Scott Dibble, a Minneapolis Democrat who placed the responsibility for the shutdown at the feet of Republicans.

A few lawmakers are accepting pay but planned to donate their July salaries to charitable causes.

Rep. Andrea Kieffer and Sen. John Howe, both Republicans, donated to food pantries in their districts. Rep. Frank Hornstein, a Minneapolis Democrat, said his legislative salary would go to a handful of nonprofits forced by the shutdown to make budget cuts.

In some states, lawmakers don't have a choice of whether to take their pay during a budget impasse. California voters passed a law last year that requires legislators to forfeit their pay after June 15 if a balanced budget is not in place. Minnesota has no such law.

Republicans have ridiculed Dayton over the fact that the housekeeper and personal chef at the governor's mansion were deemed "critical" employees, prompting the governor's office to announce that Dayton would pay the chef out of his own pocket.

As for the housekeeper, Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said the governor's residence is a public building that's nearly 100 years old.

It "requires a significant amount of maintenance and upkeep," she said. "So it is being staffed at minimal levels during the shutdown."