ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A potential Minnesota government shutdown took an ominous step forward Friday, with layoff notices going out to thousands of state employees and an immediate hiring freeze.
Ahmad Lewis, a 28-year-old tax specialist for the state, was among those calculating how long he could survive when his paycheck stops coming. The discouraging answer: Little more than a month before he starts worrying.
“I’ve got bills to pay, man,” said Lewis, of Roseville. “There’s never much left in any paycheck after I take care of expenses.”
The notices went out Friday to about 36,000 executive branch employees and another 6,000 workers at Minnesota State College and University campuses. While a court is likely to declare some essential to health and safety during a shutdown, most would stop working July 1 if a new two-year budget is not in place.
The layoff notice to executive branch employees, sent by the Minnesota Management and Budget office, says those workers would get their last paycheck on July 15. The workers are eligible to file for unemployment insurance.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders have made no progress in a dispute over taxes and spending, with Republicans demanding the state not spend above $34 billion in the next two-year budget while Dayton hopes to add another $1.8 billion mostly through a tax increase on the state’s highest earners.
In a statement Friday, Dayton called the layoff notices “a grim reminder of a deadline that is just 20 days away.” He said he was standing up for a budget “that protects students, protects seniors and prevents more than a billion dollars in property tax increases.” Those choices are too important not to take a stand.”
But state Republican Party chairman Tony Sutton placed responsibility for the layoff notices at the governor’s feet.
“Mark Dayton is obsessed with a tax increase, but his actions today demonstrate he has little regard for those most affected by a government shutdown,” Sutton said in his own statement.
Dayton’s budget commissioner and chief of staff met with his cabinet officers Friday afternoon to discuss budget negotiations and planning for the possibility of a shutdown. The administration is still preparing lists of employees it will ask a court to declare essential, but it appears likely that delivery of most state services — from licensing to road construction projects to state park operations — will be interrupted.
Dayton’s budget commissioner, Jim Schowalter, said it’s unfortunate that state workers are caught in the middle.
“The message is pretty simple,” Schowalter said. “We value their service, this is not about what they’re doing, this is about a constitutional issue. Without appropriations, we can’t spend.”
The layoff notices say some workers may still be entitled to receive an employer contribution towards their insurance coverage if there’s a shutdown. Those not eligible for the contribution would be able to continue insurance coverage at their own expense, or could choose to drop it.
Schowalter said it’s too early to say how much a shutdown might cost the state. Eliot Seide, director of the Minnesota chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — which represents 18,000 state workers — said the union’s contract states that all laid-off workers are entitled to severance, accrued vacation and comp time.
“We assert that a shutdown will cost the state more than it saves,” Seide said.
Lewis, the tax specialist, said a big part of his own job is making sure the state collects all the taxes it’s due. “If we’re not working, the state’s not getting that money,” he said.
But Lewis is more worried about his own bottom line. He supports Dayton in the dispute with Republicans, saying he’d be much more affected by lack of a paycheck than would the wealthiest taxpayers by an income tax increase.
“If this goes on too long, I might have to make a sign and stand on the side of the road: `I’m a state employee, give me a dollar please,”‘ Lewis said. “I know I shouldn’t joke about it — I’m laughing so I don’t cry. This is not a joke by any means.”
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