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For Minnesota officials, plenty of angst — but few options — when it comes to helping those affected by the shutdown

Beyond paying for social programs with state dollars for now, the governor and his administration is relegated to keeping an eye on things — and to being the sympathizer in chief.

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz speaking about the federal government shutdown at a press conference on Tuesday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Earlier this week, Gov. Tim Walz filled his reception room with state officials, lawmakers and faith leaders who wished he could do something to soften the effects of the federal government’s partial shutdown on Minnesotans.

“This is an issue that has brought us together,” Walz said as legislators from both parties stood behind him. “Everyone standing up here may have differences of opinion about the role of federal-state government is. But no one disagrees that when there is a shutdown like this, when there is a disruption in the natural order of things, people’s lives are disrupted and we’re working together.”

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Yet other than fronting the feds money for benefits programs, Walz’s to-do list when it comes to the shutdown is less doing and more talking: providing information to recipients of benefits about potential disruptions; helping Indian tribes within the state understand the impacts; assigning staff to a Contingency Response Team to monitor the situation; and working with the state attorney general to seek out legal remedies.

In fact, beyond paying for social programs with state dollars for now (with the expectation that the state will eventually be reimbursed), the governor is relegated to keeping an eye on things — and to being the sympathizer in chief.

Ellison weighs in

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said he is looking at the laws and contracts that govern state-administered social programs funded by the federal government to see if the feds could be ordered to release funds. But even the prospect of such litigation is vague and probably not timely.

Attorney General Keith Ellison
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Attorney General Keith Ellison
Ellison said he is also asking other state AGs about multi-state action patterned after the litigation by state attorneys general on issues such as the immigration ban or net neutrality. “We’re here and we are busy working to make sure promises are kept,” Ellison said. “We want to make sure Minnesotans know that we are ready, willing and able to work hand-in-hand with the governor’s office to make sure the needs of the people are met.”

But when pressed, Ellison would only say that some sort of attempt to win court order to direct payments to states is possible. “We’re prepared to make full use of the legal system to enforce the contracts and commitments that the federal government has made,” he said. “At the right and proper time we will move in an expeditious manner. I don’t want to prescribe exactly what we might do at the moment.”

Earlier this week, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. refused to get involved, saying the courts should not be used as leverage in a political battle between the other two branches of government.

More assertive action could come should the shutdown continue. If state government agencies run out of reserves to pay the up-front costs of benefits — something that could happen at the end of February and into March — Walz said he would ask the state Legislature for emergency appropriations.

Uncertainty: not good for the economy

Of the 17,000 federal workers in Minnesota, about one-third are either furloughed or working without pay. Myron Frans, commissioner of the state department of management and budget, said about 1,000 so far have applied for unemployment compensation.

Frans said it is not unusual for the state to use state money to administer programs and pay benefits and other payments. That’s part of the normal flow of cash between the states and federal agencies, and in Minnesota that figure is about $1 billion a month. These programs range from help with transportation projects to Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

“What is unusual is the fact that we now have a delay in the reimbursement we get from the federal government,” he said.

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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP, is the primary food assistance program by federal and state governments. It costs $42 million a month and helps 400,000 people in Minnesota. Of those, 70 percent are disabled, elderly or children. Federal money has been provided for the month of February but after that, the state would have to step in.

“Anytime a significant funding partner shuts down, I as budget director become concerned,” Frans said. There is also a looming issue of the 3,000 state workers who are paid with federal money. Minnesota can’t end their jobs immediately but must provide three weeks notice of furloughs.

Frans also said he is monitoring what impact the shutdown will have on the economy and, in turn, state tax collections. Even the data that is used to make revenue forecast, for example from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is being disrupted.

“Uncertainty is not good for the Minnesota economy,” he said. “The longer the shutdown goes on, the more uncertainty it will bring.”

Bipartisan agreement that the shutdown sucks

The crisis has resulted in something concrete, and somewhat rare, at the Capitol: bipartisan agreement. That was illustrated most strikingly by the presence of House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt standing behind Walz along with DFL elected officials and faith leaders.

House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt
“It was pretty important for me to be here,” Daudt said. “No. 1 because when we do agree on things it is important for us to show Minnesotans that doing the right thing isn’t partisan. When Washington is in disagreement, I think showing the stability of our state government to Minnesotans is important.

“At some point, if this continues on very long, there may be a time the Legislature has to step in,” he continued. “We certainly want to be part of the solution if we can be.”

Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he too would be willing to help with emergency funding. A scheduling conflict kept him from standing with Walz at Tuesday’s announcement.

“If there’s a way that we can work together to help those affected by the shutdown and if we can get reimbursed by the federal government, I told him that I am open to working on that,” Gazelka said.