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Minnesota Shutdown Threatens Weddings, Much More

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(credit: Jupiter Images)

(credit: Jupiter Images)

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FORT SNELLING STATE PARK, Minn. (AP) — After enduring a 15-month deployment together in Iraq and more than a year living in separate states, Crystal Morales and Derek Cloutier can’t wait to get married next month in their dream location, a historical military chapel on the bluffs above the Mississippi River in Minnesota.

One big problem: Fort Snelling State Park and its chapel may close July 1 if the Minnesota government shuts down. Morales calls the spot “my whole image of what I always wanted, like a castle.”

“I can’t even imagine really getting married anywhere else because of how perfect it is,” she said on a breezy June day outside the chapel.

Their July 16 wedding is just one of many plans that could be snarled by a second potential government shutdown in six years in Minnesota, brought on by another political impasse over taxes and spending.

Minnesota’s looming shutdown is the latest and most frantic example of a state dealing with the recession’s lingering effects, a fiscal crisis and polarized politics. Across the border in Wisconsin, where one party controlled power, the combination led to swift, sweeping change and then backlash from those opposed to reforms affecting public workers and schools. In Minnesota, a divided state government has led to stubborn brinksmanship with no progress for months on how to fix a $5 billion deficit.

This shutdown could touch the lives of far more people than 2005′s partial closure, which affected a few major state agencies and about 8,000 state employees. This time, virtually the entire state government could be involved, from state parks to road work. About 42,000 state and public college employees have gotten notices of possible layoffs. Gov. Mark Dayton has asked a court to order that some essential services continue to operate, such as prison guards and the State Patrol, public health functions and emergency management. But many things — including the state park that would host the Morales-Cloutier wedding — aren’t on his list.

Here, as in 21 other states, there’s no way to keep government operating past the end of a budget period without legislative action, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Even so, only four other states — Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — have had shutdowns in the past decade, some lasting mere hours.

Minnesota’s 2005 shutdown lasted eight days before then-GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty — who is currently waging a White House bid — compromised on a budget with a divided Legislature.

The equation is nearly flipped this year, with Dayton, a tax-the-rich Democrat, opposite a Legislature controlled by tax-averse Republicans. Both sides won power last November, meaning their negotiating prowess is being tested for the first time under the pressure of the potential shutdown.

Dayton and top lawmakers have met several times since the regular legislative session ended in May without a deal, but the situation hasn’t changed. Dayton wants to raise income taxes on the top earners, while Republicans won’t budge on a spending cap.

Failure to get a new two-year state budget by July 1 would force the shutdown. It could reach into areas where most people hardly notice the state’s role: closed traffic lanes on suspended road projects, new teachers kept out of the classroom because they can’t get licensed, state employees and their families thrown into precarious financial territory.

“If I don’t have a job come July 1, I don’t know what we’re going to do about paying our mortgage,” said Mark Proctor, a state employee who earns $47,000 a year training county workers to enroll people in public health programs. A layoff for the 42-year-old St. Paul resident would also mean his 18-year-old son would lose help in paying for college.

Tom Lindh, administrator of the Good Shepherd Nursing Home in the southeastern Minnesota town of Rushford, said he’s deeply worried about the 75-bed home if the state stops making Medicaid payments to healthcare providers. Lindh said about two-thirds of the home’s occupants are on Medicaid at any given time, making those payments a large portion of the facility’s operating budget. He said it would only take a few weeks before he would have problems making payroll and covering other vital expenses.

“Our residents have an average age of 87 or 88,” Lindh said. “These are very frail people with multiple, chronic medical conditions. About half have some kind of dementia. Many have no families and very few could function on their own. If this were to start stretching into multiple weeks or past a month, I literally don’t know what we would do.”

Also at stake are thousands of construction jobs. Bismarck, N.D.-based Knife River Corp. employs almost 800 Minnesota workers whose jobs could be shifted to North Dakota to complete contracts for a while, said company executive Tom Stockert. If Minnesota is still shut down when that work is done, “several hundred” of the Minnesota workers would be sent home, he said.

For now, Knife River is scrambling to get state permits that could be unavailable for local road projects if state offices close.

A shutdown lasting past Labor Day could hamper school finances, teacher licensing and school property tax levies, said Charlie Kyte, who heads the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

A Ramsey County judge has scheduled a hearing for Thursday to consider essential functions that would continue in a shutdown.

For Morales and Cloutier, both 25-year-old U.S. Army veterans, the uncertainty over their wedding is just the latest hurdle.

The couple met during training at Fort Lee, Va., and quickly became inseparable. They served in Iraq together from 2007 to 2008 during the U.S. troop surge, where Morales agonized on the base when Cloutier flew around the war zone to repair vehicles. Afterward, they went back to their home states but couldn’t stand living apart. He proposed the day she arrived in Minnesota from California to live with him.

“It doesn’t seem fair, with what we’ve been through, that when we want to come home and use something like a state park or a state chapel, that potentially now is going to be taken away from us,” Cloutier said.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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