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Funding dispute could force MN Senate to lay off workers Dec. 1

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nisswa announces on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, that the Senate could furlough its employees as early as Dec. 1 in a funding dispute with Gov. Mark Dayton. With Gazelka is Sen. Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls. David Oakes / Minnesota Senate

ST. PAUL — Minnesota state Senate leaders say they are preparing to lay off their 205 employees and shut down the Legislature's upper chamber.

If the courts do not rule on a funding dispute between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, Senator Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said on Wednesday, Nov. 8, that employees will receive furlough notices in December or January. Workers would not get state-funded health insurance and the Senate could not transfer payments for its 2-year-old building to the executive branch, which "owns" the facility.

Besides employees, the 67 senators would lose their pay.

"We don't take the suspension of operations of the Minnesota Senate lightly," Gazelka said. "This is not a game, but we really have no other choice today."

The Senate is running out of money because Dayton vetoed legislative funding in May, an attempt to get lawmakers back to the negotiating table to discuss changing some provisions he does not like in bills he already signed. The two sides have not been able to resolve their differences and a district court and the state Supreme Court have not stepped in to fix the problem.

Employees will be furloughed beginning Dec. 1, Gazelka said, unless the Senate can access money in the nonpartisan Legislative Coordinating Commission account. If the LCC's $3 million can be transferred, employees will be off the job beginning Jan. 12, he said.

Without some source of money, "the Senate doors will be locked," Gazelka said.

The Legislature has sued Dayton to get money restored, but the issue remains in front of a district court judge and Supreme Court justices.

"We have appealed to the courts, but I also am appealing to the governor," Gazelka said, asking for negotiations or calling lawmakers into special session to pass a new budget.

But a Dayton spokesman said that Gazella is creating the problem.

"Despite sitting on nearly $45 million in available state funding for his operations, he and other legislative leaders are choosing to lay off their own employees, rather than admit that they have misled the courts, the press and the public about their true financial situation," Assistant Chief of Staff Matt Swenson said.

Dayton, who is out of state visiting family, often has complained that lawmakers originally claimed they did not have enough money to operate, but he says lawmakers have enough to get through the Feb. 20 start of session. Gazelka said even with the $3 million LCC money the Senate would close before then.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he will call an LCC meeting soon to discuss the possibility of using some of its money to keep the Legislature running.

Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman wrote to Gazelka: "Despite cost saving efforts that began in July, such as the hiring freeze you put in place, the Senate carry forward account will be exhausted the first week of December 2017. ... If new funding is unavailable, it will be necessary to fully suspend all Senate operations after the close of business Dec. 1, 2017."

The House has more money in reserve than the Senate and might be able to remain operating into February.

The next session begins Feb. 20. It is not clear if the Legislature could function if funding is not restored by then, although Gazelka said: "We will find a way."

The first job on Feb. 20, with or without an agreement with Dayton before then, would be to pass a legislative budget, Gazelka said.

"For me, the big thing is to protect the legislative branch, which I think if the voice of the people," he added.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.