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State parks could be closed if government shuts down

The Highway 34 project is a state job, subject to a possible government shutdown July 1. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Itasca State Park could fall victim to a government shutdown if Minnesota lawmakers can't agree on a budget by June 30.

The Highway 34 reconstruction project from Park Rapids to Akeley could halt mid-lane.

"We all should be very concerned about a government shutdown," said Sen. Rod Skoe DFL-Clearbrook, who visited Park Rapids Wednesday with two other Democratic lawmakers.

Of concern to Skoe and others is "what will be deemed essential services" because those will not shut down July 1 if a two-year budget agreement isn't reached.

Parks and road construction may or may not be considered essential. Skoe admits shutting down Itasca during the height of the tourist season could have a devastating effect on the local economy.

As legislators barnstormed the state following the chaotic session that ended at midnight Monday, the heated rhetoric that brought a budget stalemate continued long after the closing gavel.

Gov. Mark Dayton fired the first salvo in the growing public relations war, saying freshman Republican legislators didn't know how to compromise and were "mean spirited" and "un-Minnesotan" for passing an anti-gay marriage amendment that will go to voters next year.

He symbolically vetoed it earlier this week. It will still go to the voters in 2012.

Then Dayton ordered government to begin shutdown procedures, as it has in 2001 and 2005, when a partial shutdown did occur.

Republicans fought back, saying they fulfilled the mandate the electorate sent them to the capitol with, to cut spending and hold firm on taxes. Early on in the session GOP legislators upped their budget by $2 billion.

Nevertheless, the $5 billion deficit the Legislature began with in January remains unresolved.

Dayton took to the skies Thursday, barnstorming to several cities in hopes of gaining support - and the upper hand - in a planned special session.

Republicans took to the airwaves calling numerous press conferences at strategic cities.

But Democrats clearly hoped to gain in the media wars, claiming the governor agreed to cuts while they accused Republicans of being seemingly mired in cement overshoes, unwilling to meet halfway.

"Everyone has their principals," said Rep. Paul Marquart DFL - Dilworth. "But if you're to govern you have to compromise."

And now the arguments have devolved into a dare of who blinks next.

Rep. David Hancock, R-Bemidji, said in a Bemidji Pioneer column this week that the Legislature, particularly Democrats, "have an excessive spending problem."

Minnesota experienced the partial shutdown in 2005 for the same budgetary reasons. But then Gov. Tim Pawlenty took mercy on state parks, allowing them to open in time for the July 4th holiday.

Skoe, Marquart and Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, say they were shocked that the Republicans, many elected on the TEA party ballot, didn't move when Dayton offered a compromise to his own budget.

"Governors have always gotten 80 percent of what they have (asked for) in the past," Eken maintained.

Dayton proposed raising revenue by raising taxes on the highest 5 percent of Minnesota wage earners.

He backed off that in the session's final weeks, proposing a tax on the state's richest 2 percent. Republicans universally balked, saying "Minnesotans don't need more taxes," Skoe characterized the argument.

But the DFLers say there have to be revenue enhancements in the form of a tax increase to offset drastic cuts in spending.

As it stands now, St. Joseph's Area Health Services in Park Rapids faces a $1.4 million cut in health and human services reimbursements; Sanford Health in Bemidji could take a $10 million hit, Skoe said. Taxing the state's richest 2 percent would offset those cuts, Skoe maintains.

College tuition will rise drastically across the state to offset cuts to education.

"Having a daughter going off to college, I'm staring it in the face," Eken said.

The legislators say a domino effect then takes place.

Lack of access to education means the workforce isn't as prepared as it should be and businesses can't thrive without educated workers, they maintain, causing a "hostile business climate."

Renters' credits will be cut approximately $200 per year, affecting 307 Hubbard County seniors, Marquart said.

"The fourth tier of Dayton's tax cut affects 73 Hubbard County filers," Marquart said of the opposition to raising taxes on the wealthiest residents.

"So we're raising taxes on the 307 seniors to protect the top 73," he protested of the Republican plan.

Park Rapids would lose $456,000 in Local Government Aid and market value credit as the budget stands today, Marquart maintains.

City leaders have made numerous presentations to say how hard those cuts could affect Park Rapids.

So as the rhetoric continues and the governor plans for a possible shutdown, there is one thing both sides of the aisle are agreed on: "We need a cooling off period," Skoe said.

Dayton plans to meet with the House and Senate leadership and put together a budget framework.

When asked to assess the session, Skoe admitted it "was pretty poor. We got very little accomplished."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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