Government shutdown is a notion that lawmakers like to throw around to gain an advantage during particularly nasty budget negotiations, but more often than not there’s more bark than bite behind such threats. That, at least, was the hope of Minnesota government employee Nicque Mabry Schaff, who after toiling for the state’s Democratic Party and on local campaigns, now holds a job she loves as a legislative assistant to state Senator Linda Higgins.
But as it became increasingly clear that Democratic Governor Mark Dayton and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature would fail to come to an agreement about how to close a $5 billion budget shortfall, the unthinkable became inevitable. Since July 1, the government has been shut down, costing thousands of jobs and untold dollars in revenues. In addition, the government has earned the dubious distinction of holding the record for the longest shutdown since 2002, when the National Association of State Legislatures began keeping records.
Schaff is lucky, because she has not been furloughed without pay like 23,000 other state employees, workers at nonprofits and private construction firms. But the anxiety she felt while waiting to learn if her life would be upended is still fresh.
“The uncertainty was just too much. In addition to being a full-time staffer, I am finishing a bachelor’s degree in social work, so the idea of facing school and life and keeping everything going without knowing that I could depend on my salary was very scary,” she said.
Although her job is safe—for now—thousands of others are less fortunate and the state’s African and African-American populations are having to do without essential services that they depended on to keep their lives ticking in an already uncertain economy.
In many ways, the impasse in Minnesota mirrors the budget debates taking place in Washington and in state legislatures across the nation. In most cases, Democrats and Republicans are arguing about whether to raise taxes or revenues to close budget shortfalls. The shutdown is costing Minnesota millions of dollars in lost revenues from lottery sales, state park fees, highway tolls and tax revenues that are going uncollected because state auditors have been laid off. Close to 100 construction projects also have been halted.
“It really boils down to ideology,” says Rep. Bobby Joe Champion.
In addition to a refusal to impose higher taxes on the state’s top earners, he says, Republican lawmakers are holding the budget negotiations hostage to such issues as voter ID laws, abortion, gay marriage and collective bargaining.
“They’re still saying to protect the top two percent of Minnesota earners, we’ll hold the other 98 percent hostage,” Champion said. “So I don’t know when this shutdown is going to end. I think it’s going to take a miracle.”
One of the areas most impacted by the shutdown is the state-funded child-care subsidy that enables parents to go to work while ensuring that their children are receiving quality care that they couldn’t otherwise afford.
“Low-income, working people who can have their kids in high quality child care will have to use family and friends. There’s a lot of wisdom that Auntie and Grandma can give, but they’re not preparing them for kindergarten unless they’re exceptional people,” said Rep. Joe Hayden, the House’s assistant minority leader.
In addition, he said, nonprofit and other community-based organizations that minorities depend on aren’t getting paid, and more than 100,000 people who work in restaurant and other service industries could lose their health care. And if the Republican budget proposal were to be enacted, school districts in which there are higher percentages of students of color would lose critical funding that they receive because there isn’t enough money coming in from property taxes to fund education.
Lester Collins is executive director of the state’s Council on Black Minnesotans, a government-funded advisory council on African-American issues. His office has been shuttered because it’s not considered to be an essential service.
“My concern is that, especially in this economy, it was already pretty rough and tight for poor people and African-Americans in particular,” he said. “The shutdown will have an extreme impact on those who can least afford to deal with it in terms of medical care, homelessness, youth services and housing assistance,” Collins said.
Collins also worries about small businesses that depend on government contracts and provide such services as tobacco education in the African-American community.
“Most people I’ve talked to were extremely hopeful that a shutdown wouldn’t occur,” he said. “I think they’re very surprised that it’s gone this far.”
(Photo: AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Jim Gehrz)