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Shutdown warning letters issued to Minnesotans

ST. PAUL - Minnesotans are beginning to hear directly from state officials what a government shutdown could mean to them.

More than 600,000 residents are opening letters from the Department of Human Services this week warning that their health care and other benefits could stop if the state runs out of money July 1.

Gov. Mark Dayton said the letters prove people around the state would be affected by a shutdown, caused by a budget impasse.

"They should be calling their legislators" so the budget may be solved, he said about those receiving letters.

More than 60,000 state workers already have been served layoff notices by the state and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

The letters are in response to a budget dispute between Democrat Dayton and Republicans who control the Legislature. If they do not agree on a two-year budget by July 1, there will be no funds for government to continue operating. Legislative leaders and the governor plan to meet about the budget today.

Sen. Keith Langseth, D-Glyndon, said he believes it will take a crisis before Republican legislators are willing to compromise on the budget.

"I know for a fact there's going to be a shutdown," Langseth said. "How much of a crisis does it have to be before they'll budge?"

Attorney General Lori Swanson on Monday asked the courts to order funding to continue for essential services such as law enforcement and health care programs.

The Minnesota Constitution requires the Legislature to appropriate all funds the state spends.

Each state department is working on its own shutdown plan, including the courts that are being asked to keep some funding in place despite the constitution.

The state Judicial Council met last week and plans another meeting this week to decide what the courts will do if money runs out.

"We have also convened a continuing operations planning committee to discuss possible contingencies in the event an appropriation is not approved by June 30," Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said. "We urge all concerned citizens to contact their legislators and Gov. Dayton and tell them to keep the courts operating as a core, constitutionally mandated function of state government."

Some of the Human Services letters tell clients to contact their county office if the state staff is not available.

"This is really a dramatic letter, and I think a lot of people will rush to us, and we don't have any answers," said Beltrami County Administrator Tony Murphy said.

Beltrami offices, like others around the state, are not staffed to accommodate a lot of excess calls.

"Short of referring these clients to our locally elected state legislators, I don't know what we might say to alleviate the very real anxiety of desperate people," Murphy said in a letter to county commissioners.

Human Services letters have gone out to people who receive health care, cash and food support, adoption assistance, child care aid and food assistance.

The letter sent to the most Minnesotans, 572,000, explains the situation: "Without a state budget, we may not be able to pay for all health care services. You may have trouble getting health care services."

Most state-funded health care goes to poor, disabled and elderly Minnesotans.

Human Services officials also warned private firms doing business with the state that a shutdown likely would end their payments.

In the meantime, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system officials are worried. The potential shutdown was a major topic at a meeting Tuesday in Moorhead with Moorhead higher education representatives and legislators.

Shawn Anderson, registrar for Minnesota State Community and Technical College, said he knows of at least one potential student considering a North Dakota college out of concerns about the shutdown.

If campuses are closed for days or weeks this summer, that means lost time to recruit students or process applications, Anderson said.

"We will lose students," Anderson said. "Those families are going to find other places, and we're not going to get them back."

Cindy Phillips, president of the faculty association at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said she's been getting emails from faculty concerned about how their health coverage would be affected by a shutdown. One faculty member wanted to know when to schedule chemo therapy.

But even though a shutdown would be painful, faculty are more worried about the future if deep cuts are made to higher education, Phillips said.

"We can't let that pressure us into accepting a settlement that will inflict long-term pain on students, faculty and staff," Phillips said.

Amy Dalrymple of The Forum and Molly Miron of the Bemidji Pioneer contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.