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Workers protest as Minnesota government shuts down

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MahurinEcon_Thumb_1622.jpg

Nell Nere sat on the steps of the Capitol Thursday night, hours before her state government shut down indefinitely.

Nere, a worker in the state’s Department of Labor and Industry and a member of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, began chatting with a student representative from Minnesota College Republicans about the numbers behind the budget dispute that has caused a historic shutdown.

“This is going to be a tragedy,” Nere said, scanning a growing crowd at the Capitol. “It’s going to be a huge hardship. Are we going to look like Minnesota, or are we going to look like Mississippi?”

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Shutdown30Jun11KE164-300x199_1618.jpg

Robert Benson of Hugo (left) and Nell Nere, an employee at the Department of Labor and Industry. Photo: Kathy Easthagen

With Gov. Mark Dayton unable to come to terms with Republican legislative leaders on a budget deal late Thursday night, the state government shut down and the fate of up to 23,000 state employees who have received layoff notices is highly uncertain.

A crowd of hundreds of state workers, including members of Minnesota’s two largest public employees’ unions — MAPE and AFSCME Council 5 — filled the steps of the Capitol Thursday night for a Shutdown Eve Vigil. Protesters held small signs — most calling for increased taxes on the state’s wealthiest 2 percent — as they dabbed sweat from their faces. Cries of “We want to work for Minnesota!” and “Tax the rich!” rang through the area. Participants ranged from those in wheelchairs to infants to disgruntled, but motivated state workers.

Even a few legislators made their way to a window at the front of the Capitol, holding candles and watching the protest.

“The Republican legislature has spent the last six months bashing and demonizing public employees,” AFSCME Council 5 director Eliot Seide shouted into a microphone at the top of the steps to a chorus of boos.

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.minnesotaindependent.com/shutdown30Jun11KE262-300x199.jpgAFSCME Council 5 Executive Director Eliot Seide. Photo: Kathy Easthagen

Throughout the night, religious leaders and public employees made their way to the microphone, using rhetoric of “brothers and sisters” to address the crowd. The Twin Cities Labor Chorus sang “This land is your land,” among other songs. Speakers discussed the importance of the public sector, bashing the GOP-controlled legislature for what they perceived as disdain towards state employees. They spoke in support of Dayton, calling for the DFL governor to stay strong through the conversations.

“Tonight, our hearts and souls go out to all of you because it’s the public sector that makes this state work,” said Marcia Zimmerman, a rabbi at Minneapolis’ Temple Israel.

But ralliers with highly negative attitudes flooded the Capitol entrance.

Rebecca Carpentier works for HIRED, an agency which helps low-income adults, dislocated workers, welfare-to-work individuals, refugees and youth find jobs and job training.

“We’re putting people to work only to find out they can’t work,” said Carpentier. “That’s bullshit … Everyone wants the workforce working. I work at an agency to do that. But they’re cutting our fingers and toes off.”

Nearby, B.J. Wuollet engaged members of the College Republicans — seemingly the only conservative representation on the steps of the Capitol — in an argument about the role of government.

“My sister will not be able to feed her children or take them to the doctor,” said Wuollet, who was frequently heard telling the small group of Republicans they were “bumming Jesus out.”

Ryan Lyk, chairman of Minnesota College Republicans, fired back, calling Dayton’s unwillingness to sign a budget bill a “bad move.”

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Shutdown30Jun11KE421-300x199_1620.jpg

The State Capitol, just prior to shutdown. Photo: Kathy Easthagen

“At the very least, they need to figure out their differences,” Lyk said. “We need to keep government going to some extent.”

Dayton addressed the press and many Republican legislators as protestors continued to shout and sing, the St. Paul skyline behind them.

“I deeply regret that the last week of intense negotiations between the Republican legislative leaders and Senator Bakk, Representative Thissen, and myself have failed to bridge the divide between us,” Dayton said.

After Dayton and Republicans put all their offers on the table, a $1.4 billion gap remained between the two proposals, the governor said. He added that he, Thissen and Bakk made two offers Thursday, which involved raising revenues by increases taxes only on Minnesotans who make more than $1 million per year. Dayton said the Department of Revenue reported that figure includes 0.3 percent of the state’s population.

“I will continue — tonight, tomorrow, and however long it takes — to find a fair and balance compromise,” Dayton said to close his speech. “I welcome Republicans to join with me – my door is always open. I believe the people of Minnesota are with me. I ask them to join me in standing up for our State’s future.”

Republican lawmakers said the rift remains because they can’t support Dayton’s plan for dealing with the state’s $5 billion deficit.

“We will not saddle our children and grandchildren with mounds of debts, with promises for funding levels that will not be there in the future,” House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said, according to the Star Tribune. “This is debt that they can’t afford. It’s debt that we can’t afford right now.”

As the midnight deadline neared and Twitter buzzed with thoughts on the shutdown and complaints about the state’s politicians, the gathering at the Capitol began to disperse.

“It’s time for [Republican legislators] to act responsibly,” Seide told the Minnesota Independent after the vigil. “A little adult action would be nice. I just hope the legislators can come to their senses quickly.”

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