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Shutdown Day 14: Lawmakers seek continued road work

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ST. PAUL -- Schools get money during Minnesota's state government shutdown, so a pair of legislative transportation leaders say road construction funding also should continue.

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A judge hearing the case gave them little hope that she would allow resumption of the 98 road construction projects the shutdown idled. An estimated 10,000 workers were on road projects before the shutdown.

"Due to the shutdown, the public is going to be weaving through cones and barrels," Rep. Michal Beard, R-Shakopee told Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin in her Ramsey County courtroom on Wednesday.

Beard and Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, are legislative transportation committee chairmen, but said they bought the case to restart construction as knowledgeable citizens, not legislators.

Gearin hinted she likely will rule against the pair.

"It sounds like all of a sudden you want me to be a super activist judge," she told the two Republicans, touching on a political issue in which Republicans often complain about activist judges.

The construction case joins several others awaiting Gearin's ruling. She often has said in open court that she opposes authorizing the spending of money during the shutdown unless it is for essential uses.

On Monday, Gearin indicated she leaned against allowing the state to rehire laid-off workers to continue an environmental impact study for Polymet mining, which wants to open a northeastern Minnesota copper and nickel mine.

On Tuesday, she spoke against allowing Department of Natural Resources regulators from going back on the payroll to supervise logging on state lands. That case will be argued more in depth on Monday.

Gimse said he remained hopeful, even after hearing Gearin's opinions. The hope comes from the two legislators' view that the state Constitution requires funding schools and road projects, the only two areas specifically listed in the document.

The Willmar senator was not happy that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton opposed restarting construction: "I get the feeling that they will continue to put forth roadblocks."

Gimse and Beard have not met personally with the governor since the legislative session adjourned on May 23, although they have had two meetings with his staff.

The Legislature adjourned after passing a Republican-written budget that Dayton vetoed the next day. Republicans want to limit spending in the next two years to $34 billion, while Dayton wants to increase some taxes to boost spending to $35.8 billion.

Without a budget in place July 1, when the new budget was to start, much state spending stopped. About 22,000 workers were laid off, although all of the court system and Legislature remain funded.

Dayton and Republicans who control the Legislature have met for less than two hours since the shutdown began nearly two weeks ago. Each side says it is waiting for the other to make the next move.

If road construction was the Wednesday shutdown topic that affects the most Minnesotans, the most emotional was the revelation that the shutdown means Miller, Coors and some other beers may no longer be sold in Minnesota.

Registrations for MillerCoors' 39 brands sold in Minnesota expired last month and people who handle state registrations were laid off on July 1. The state demands that MillerCoors takes its products off the shelves, but the company is looking for another solution.

The state is looking into whether other beer makers also may not comply with registration rules.

Also, many bars around the state face their state-required buyer's card expiring during the shutdown. Without the card, a bar cannot buy more alcohol.

The League of Minnesota Cities has told its members that since the state must approve most liquor licenses, some bars and other alcohol sellers may no longer be able to obtain licenses.

In other shutdown news:

-- Reports surfaced that some people who sell fishing licenses are accepting payments for licenses and giving buyers a receipt on the assumption that conservation officers will not write them tickets for illegal fishing. The Department of Natural Resources Web site reports that during the shutdown "all natural resource and license laws will remain in effect during a shutdown and will be enforced."

-- Gearin ordered the Minnesota Family Investment Program welfare plan to continue.

-- Some child care assistance programs will be allowed to pay benefits, but not migrant child care funding.

-- Gearin clarified that some chemical dependency treatment programs, home health services and mental health services will continue.

-- The League of Minnesota Cities says that since the state is not conducting electrical inspections, cities may pass ordinances to take over that duty during the shutdown. Whether cities can do plumbing inspections remains in question.

-- Dayton visited Rochester and Albert Lea to promote his budget, telling audiences that Republican-passed spending bills would hurt Minnesotans.

-- Legislators and others said the state's two horse-racing tracks lost more than 1,700 jobs in the shutdown because Gearin will not allow state inspectors to work at the track.

In court Wednesday, Gearin lectured Gimse and Beard for lack of a state budget.

"You also are the only ones who have the ability to resolve the mess we are in," she told the lawmakers.

The two told Gearin that the state needs to maintain construction sites or they could erode badly. The judge said that would be allowed under an order she issued June 29.

In a separate case, contractors and others argued that the state already has contracts with them to build and fix roads, and they should be paid even if work has stopped.

"They have got to pay us right now," attorney Dean Thompson said.

Thompson added that the state would need $7.7 million a month to bring back workers needed to restore construction projects. He argued that money is available by making changes in projects, such as reducing money spent on vegetation.

Gimse told Gearin the main point he and Beard wanted to make: "We felt strongly that we need to abide by the Constitution," and the document says Minnesota "shall" maintain a highway system.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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