Minnesota government opens after 20 days
ST. PAUL -- "Open" signs began to appear around Minnesota state government Thursday, with most functions expected to resume by early next week after a 20-day government shutdown.
"The guys are out mowing the campground," Jay Cooke State Park manager Eunice Luedtke said. "We have to flush out the water lines. ... Then we have to get the hot-water heaters going."
Activities at the park, south of Duluth, were echoed at parks, rest stops and other facilities across Minnesota as workers take them out of mothballs.
In other cases, state services resumed immediately Thursday, a day after Gov. Mark Dayton signed bills establishing a $35.7 billion budget for the next two years. An impasse over the budget forced many state services to be suspended until a new budget was in place.
Thursday was, one state worker said, much like the first day of school. Like a school principal, for instance, Commissioner Tom Landwehr of the Department of Natural Resources stood outside his agency's headquarters building to greet returning employees.
Also Thursday, a group of state senators called for a law to prevent future shutdowns and members of a political organization rallied against the new state budget.
Among services that restarted Thursday was the Minnesota State Lottery, with an estimated $92 million Powerball jackpot coming on Saturday.
Also working were Public Safety Department employees who give tests for driver's licenses. People with driving tests scheduled for Thursday or later can just show up, but those with appointments during the shutdown need to reschedule. Also, written tests are available, as well as on line vehicle license plate renewal and other Web services.
Fishing and hunting licenses were among the first services to be restored.
Not everything is open.
Some state parks sustained damage to buildings and trees, both due to storms and vandalism, and will take longer to prepare. They include Afton, Lake Bronson, Camden, Upper Sioux Agency, Flandreau, Blue Mounds, Wild River and St. Croix.
Camping reservations will be honored at parks as they reopen, but no new reservations will be accepted until Tuesday. Refunds are being prepared for people who had reservations during the shutdown.
Employees at Gooseberry Falls State Park dealt with trash, park manager Audrey Butts said. Park conditions were as she expected them to be after a state shutdown, as if nobody had been there to clean up for three weeks.
Some parks, such as Gooseberry, received heavy use throughout the shutdown when public restrooms were closed, and the DNR's Chris Niskanen said feces disposal will be a priority.
"I understand there were people and dogs leaving little treasures for people to find later, and we'll be working to clean that up," he said.
Supporters of the liberal TakeAction Minnesota gathered at the Capitol to complain about the budget.
"Were the Republican legislators thinking of you or these families when they crafted a health care budget that would put 8,000 people at the mercy of private insurance companies and vouchers that go directly to an insurance company and not to your doctor?" asked Anne Marie Metzger of Woodbury, a health-care worker.
No one knows how much the shutdown and reopening of government will cost.
"Assessing, calculating and compiling the costs associated with the government shutdown will take several weeks," Commissioner Jim Schowalter of Minnesota Management and Budget said. "State agencies have been running only critical services for the past 20 days and won't have all the information or analysis until activities resume."
A group of Republican lawmakers proposed legislation that would prevent the state from experiencing the cost of another shutdown.
"This cannot be allowed to happen again," Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo, said.
He proposed reviving a 2006 bill authored by Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon - then a Democratic state senator from Duluth - calling for government to be funded at its current levels even if negotiators fail to reach a budget agreement in time for the state's fiscal deadline.
"I think I can sum up all my comments in two words: never again," Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, said.
Twelve other states, including Wisconsin, have similar laws, Lillie said.
The lawmakers defended the proposal against questions over how negotiators could maintain incentive to reach a budget compromise if government continues running.
Lillie said it's conceivable that an impasse could stretch indefinitely under such a scenario.
"It is a possibility," he said, but said Minnesotans would not be impacted in the same way they would under a government shutdown.
The Duluth News Tribune and Woodbury Bulletin contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.