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Minnesota budget impasse: What does the government shutdown mean?

Minnesotans and state employees learn what stays open and who stays home during a state government shutdown. Cops: On duty. State parks: Closed for the Fourth of July weekend.

By Staff writer / July 1, 2011

A closed sign is posted on a door to the Fort Snelling Veterans Memorial Chapel in Minneapolis, closed Friday, July 1 after deadlocked negotiations over the state budget between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton let to a government shutdown at midnight. The shutdown will result in cancelled weddings at the chapel.

Jim Mone / AP

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What does a "government shutdown" really mean? Residents of Minnesota are finding out, because a new fiscal year dawned Friday morning with no budget deal in sight.

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It's not really a total closure of the state government. A state judge has ruled that "essential" workers like highway patrol officers keep doing their jobs. But numerous government operations are on an indefinite hiatus as of 12:01am, July 1.

Guarding prison inmates? That's considered essential. Ditto for medical care or providing emergency aid if a tornado or other distaster hits.

Obtaining a fishing license? That's not essential. Even in the middle of summer vacation season. Even in Minnesota.

State parks closed down just before one of the busiest weekends of summer. Animals at the state zoo are being fed but visitors can't come to see them. A program that provides child-care assistance for low-income families has been put on hold. Seniors who call a hotline for information on things like health insurance get a recorded message.

Such is life in Minnesota under a shutdown, an unusual event that caps a months-long standoff over tax hikes proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton (D).

Across the nation, many states face fiscal difficulties, but all the others have managed to enter their fiscal year without having to close shop. What made Minnesota different was the stark rift between Governor Dayton, who says higher taxes on wealthier residents should be part of the solution to the deep budget gap, and Republicans in the legislature who staunchly disagree.

Dayton rejected the idea of a temporary "lights on" bill to keep state operations going while the two sides keep negotiating. Now it appears to be a political test to see who blinks – which may depend on which side gets more blame for failing to have a budget in place.

In the meantime, the state's judicial system – which has called itself essential – will decide appeals from groups regarding some halted programs.

Loggers want to keep harvesting timber on state lands, and have gone to Koochiching County District Court with their case.

Near Minnesota's shuttered Capitol, retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz is serving as a special judge to hear numerous other pleas from people and groups.

Across the country, other states have reached budget agreements – some of them last-minute – at a time of financial strain. Revenue from existing taxes are rising, but haven't yet recovered from the damage of a deep recession two years ago. Most states have already made significant spending cuts, and voters aren't generally in a mood to see their taxes go up.

That made for tough choices from Washington State to Massachusetts. In Minnesota, the percentage gap between revenues and spending for the coming year was larger than in most states.

Dayton has insisted on closing a substantial portion of the $5 billion gap through a tax increase on higher-income residents.

Minnesota's last shutdown was just six years ago, when Republican then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (now a presidential aspirant) faced off against legislative Democrats – technically members of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Only four other states – Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee – have had shutdowns in the past decade, some lasting mere hours.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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