Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin ruled Wednesday that the core, essential functions of state government will remain functional and funded if the budget impasse at the Capitol leads to a government shutdown Friday.
Doing otherwise, she wrote, would be a violation of Minnesotans’ constitutional rights.
The decision paves the way for a limited government shutdown and approves state funds to be spent on a host of services deemed essential in a memo from the Dayton administration and spelled out in the order itself. Retired Supreme Court Justice Kathleen Blatz will serve as special master to handle any disputes over what is and isn’t considered an essential service.
In general, as a practical and legal matter, Gearin’s ruling sides with Gov. Mark Dayton’s definition of what should be seen as an essential core service amid a government shutdown, but notably went further in approving payments to local governments and school districts, money which is already dedicated under state law. Gearin rejected the broader definition advanced by Attorney General Lori Swanson that would have led to a softer shutdown.
But despite the overall tenor of the ruling, the continuation of LGA and school payments was a significant deviation from the Dayton administration’s position that the funds wouldn’t be disbursed. That aspect disarms two of the most significant remaining pressure points in a shutdown after the governor’s office reversed course on withholding payments to health care providers.
The GOP has accused Dayton of pushing for a more limited continuation of services in an attempt to nudge Republican leadership toward accepting a larger budget and avoid a protracted and more acceptable “lights on” shutdown. The GOP-controlled Senate, though, made the case that no state funds should be spent in a shutdown, an argument wholly rejected in Gearin’s decision.
“The Court finds that ‘core functions’ that are critical enough to require court-order funding despite Article XI are far less in number and breath than proposed by the Attorney General and those seeking amicus curiae status,” Gearin wrote. Download the full opinion from Gearin here.
Gearin’s decision is the most complete defeat to date for the argument — advanced at first by four conservative GOP senators and later by the Senate as a whole — that no state funds can constitutionally be spent without proper approval from the Legislature. That argument was also rejected when a court ruled Tuesday that the courts will also remain open in a shutdown. The lawmakers also previously took their case to the Supreme Court, which dismissed it without prejudice. For now, it’s unclear whether they’ll continue to pursue a complete shutdown on one hand while also pushing for Dayton to call a special session and agree to a “lights on” bill before a shutdown Friday.
Specifically, Gearin sided with the Dayton administration in identifying the following services as core government functions: Custodial care for those in nursing homes, correctional facilities, treatment centers and veterans homes; public safety and public health programs; payments for medical programs that benefit individuals; the essential financial services of government; other necessary administrative and support services, including information technology.
Local government aid payments and funds destined for school districts, which are dedicated funds and scheduled to be disbursed in mid-July, will be paid under the court’s ruling. State funds that are tied to state-federal programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will continue as well, Gearin ruled, citing existing agreements between the state and Washington. The Legislature, too, will be funded in a shutdown.
A number of state programs did not meet that test, however. State funding for non-federal child care services will not continue, for example, something Gearin said may cause “extreme hardship.” Funding that would have allowed horse racing and transportation projects to continue was also not approved by Gearin’s order. Under the decision, the Minnesota Zoo will close except for essential staff to tend to the animals.
Throughout the opinion, Gearin echoed many of the sentiments she expressed at the shutdown hearing held last Thursday, namely her reluctance to get involved in the budget-making progress and her hope that a shutdown will be avoided by reaching a compromise at the Capitol. Gearin also made clear that it was the budget impasse, not her ruling, that was the source of the looming shutdown and all it entails.
“These likely consequences,” Gearin wrote of a shutdown’s side-effects, “can only be avoided by the exercise of legislative and executive branch discretion and in settling the budget issues.”