What Stops -- and What Doesn't -- When a State Government Shuts Down?

Minnesota state government
Minnesota state government

It has been exactly one week since Minnesota's state government shut down. It's a strange idea, that the publicly-funded portion of the country's 12thlargest state by area -- at almost 87,000 square miles -- and 21st largest state by population -- home to 5.3 million people -- could simply stop operating.
But what does it actually mean for a government to shut down? I kept imagining the dusty ghost towns of old Westerns, where the streets are empty and the wind rattles the swinging doors of abandoned homes. But obviously, it can't be anything like that. Those millions of Minnesotans didn't just move out overnight. Rather, they're still going about their daily lives as best they can.

Minnesota state government Zoo
Minnesota state government Zoo

The shutdown was announced on July 1 after to budget talks deadlocked between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled legislature. Dayton wants to raise taxes on the state's wealthiest residents to help close the gap on the state's $5 billion shortfall; Republican legislators do not. The legislature passed a two-year, $34 billion budget that Dayton rejected because it did not include any tax increases. Now, the government is stalled, as the state constitution forbids the state to spend money until the matter is resolved. As a result, only those services deemed "critical core functions" are operational.

So, what does Minnesota consider critical? In broad terms, as reported by Minnesota Public Radio:

  • Basic care and services are continuing for Minnesotans residing in state correctional facilities, treatment centers, nursing homes, veterans homes and other state-run residential facilities.

  • The key components of the state's financial system, including accounting and payroll, are running. Key administrative systems, including Internet security, are also operating.

  • Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, and other programs that rely on federal funding are still functioning. However, state-funded child care services for low-income residents have been suspended.

  • Law enforcement and other key emergency workers are still on the job as part of a larger agreement to maintain public safety, including issues related to public health.

  • K-12 public education will continue to operate, and teachers will continue to receive their salaries. However, licenses aren't being issued to new teachers, which means the schools can't hire new teachers. It also means that the one-fifth of the state's teachers who currently need to renew their licenses are unable to do so. Because the state's colleges and universities have their own funds above and beyond the state's money, they can continue to operate.

  • The $265 million that was earmarked for various Minnesota cities is still scheduled to be paid out on July 20, which is important, as it will help cities to continue providing basic services during the shut down.

  • Staff responsible for conducting background checks will continue working so that employers can continue to hire. "For instance, the Minnesota Hospital Association argued that hospitals would not be able to hire new doctors until background checks were reinstated," explains Minnesota Public Radio.

  • Metro Transit will continue to operate the public transportation system because the majority of its funding comes from its customers. However, it's likely fares will increase. It's also unclear if public transportation can finance itself without state funds for longer than eight weeks.

So what isn't considered critical? Here's a partial list of services that Minnesotans are not receiving during the shut down:

  • Road repairs and construction have been suspended. State rest stops are closed.

  • All state parks are closed, as are state-funded museums. Requests for hunting, fishing and boating licenses are not being processed.

  • Tax refunds have been suspended (though the state Department of Revenue is continuing to process tax payments and residents are still required to abide by all existing tax deadlines and laws).

  • Existing drivers licenses can be renewed through police departments, but because the Driver and Vehicle Services is closed, new ones can't be issued. Car inspections and commercial vehicle registrations are also suspended.

  • Grants to nonprofit organizations engaged in the provision of social services have been put on hold.

In addition to these cutbacks, 22,000 state employees have been laid off. They are receiving health care benefits, but not severance or other pay. They are, however, eligible for unemployment, which the state is providing. For more information, visit Minnesota Public Radio, which has provided excellent coverage, including information on the depressing fact that the shutdown is likely to cost the state millions of dollars.

As for the immediate impact, according to The Economist, "For now, argues Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota, the dispute is only affecting a small minority. But the longer it lasts, the more severe the consequences will become. Ever-increasing numbers of Minnesotans will find themselves denied routine services. Temporarily unemployed state workers will struggle to make ends meet. Businesses that serve the state government or have lots of civil servants as customers are already said to be laying off staff."