ST. PAUL, Minn. – Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican leaders restarted budget talks Tuesday for the first time since Minnesota's government shut down five days earlier, but with no progress to speak of the focus shifted from the Capitol to a courtroom where recipients of government money pleaded for their services to continue.
Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch met for about an hour and said they would resume talks Wednesday.
The possibility of a lingering shutdown raised the stakes for dozens of groups who spent Tuesday in a courtroom before a court-appointed special master. In the second day of such hearings, the special master — former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz — heard pleas from advocates for the homeless and indigent and sexual assault victims, as well as child care providers, police officers and prosecutors, hospital officials and more.
With 10 beds and a waiting list 21 people long, the Emily Program had planned to open a second in-patient facility for people with serious eating disorders later this month.
The private, St. Paul-based treatment program was waiting on a July 18 inspection by the licensing division of the Department of Human Services. The division closed in the shutdown, and "without that last step in the licensing process, the program will be unable to open," said Jillian Lampert, director of licensing for The Emily Program.
The shutdown that started Friday resulted from a budget impasse over how to erase a $5 billion deficit. Dayton wants to raise income taxes on the state's wealthiest residents to provide more money for social services and public education. Republican lawmakers oppose any tax increase.
Until a budget deal materializes, state spending decisions fall to Blatz, who stepped down as the state's chief justice in 2006. A state district court judge has ordered programs essential to life, health and public safety to continue during the shutdown, and Blatz must make recommendations to her on which programs qualify.
As she presided over the parade of need, Blatz repeatedly reminded those before her that she had limited power.
"It's not a comment on the value of your services. It goes to the limits of the court's power," she said, trying to downplay the expectations of two representatives from the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, a treatment and counseling center that holds a number state contracts to provide social services.
The center focuses on "prevention and advocacy," which Blatz suggested wasn't essential to the public's health and safety. With no "disruption," she said, "We're limited until they figure things out across the street."
Many requests came from people and groups worried services would shut down because they couldn't get state licenses, background checks and inspections required by law. Ben Peltier, legal counsel for the Minnesota Hospital Association, said hiring at its 45 member hospitals has halted because state background checks required by law aren't available.
Large hospitals can probably shuffle existing staff for a few weeks, but some 65 smaller hospitals that typically treat 25 or fewer patients could end up short-staffed, Peltier said. "The only option is to ask people to work longer hours, and they won't always do that," he said.
A similar dilemma faces police departments, whose new hires must obtain a state license from an office that's closed. Chief Daniel Hatten of the Hutchinson Police Department said he's currently down three patrol officers on his 22-officer team, and he's had to swap several specialized investigators back into patrol shifts.
"It's not just a fatigue factor," Hatten said. "It's the ability to deliver the protection at a level not only that the community expects but also from a basic safety perspective."
Dayton's legal team asked Blatz on Tuesday to expand the list of critical services and recommend funding be continued for special education, mental health and chemical dependency programs, child care assistance and other services to the vulnerable.
After Tuesday's brief negotiating session, Republicans emerged to say they had asked Dayton again to call a special session so they could pass a so-called lights-on bill. That would restart government while negotiations continue, but Dayton has consistently refused.
Dayton sounded pessimistic about the chances the GOP would accept his call for higher income taxes and said Tuesday's session included talk of other revenue sources, including tobacco and alcohol taxes, an expanded sales tax and other ideas.
"I don't give up on anything, but every time I suggest it — even on millionaires, 0.3 percent of the people in the state of Minnesota, it's soundly rejected by the Republicans," he said of the income tax proposal. "They've got control of the Legislature. They're in the majority in both the House and the Senate. If they're not going to support something, I can't singlehandedly get it passed."
Also Tuesday, two of the state's political veterans — former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale — launched an independent commission they said would offer ideas to resolve the deadlock. They said they hoped to do so by the end of the week.