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Lock-in may stop shutdown

House Speaker Kurt Zellers tells reporters Wednesday that he suggested that he, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and Gov. Mark Dayton lock themselves into a room Friday and Saturday and not come out until they have a budget deal. Dayton and Koch agreed. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's three key budget negotiators hope two days locked in a room together can produce a deal that they could not reach in the last six months.

The Friday and Saturday lock-in will provide an answer to how locked in the two sides are on their budget proposals, and may tell Minnesotans whether their state government will shut down on July 1.

"Friday and Saturday, we will spend all day -- the governor, the majority leader and I -- in a room, negotiating bills," House Speaker Zellers, R-Maple Grove said Wednesday.

Zellers, who came up with the idea, will be behind closed doors with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, with only an occasional financial expert visiting, Zellers said. "We won't leave until we at least have some consensus, a framework."

Neither side in the budget impasse indicated they plan to give any ground on issues that have separated them since Dayton took office Jan. 3 and the new Legislature started a day later.

While the trio planned their lock-in, which Koch said could last day and night, more organizations sought a say in what could get funding in a government shutdown.

A hearing is to begin this morning in Ramsey County District Court in St. Paul to consider petitions by Dayton and Attorney General Lori Swanson to continue funding some state programs during a shutdown. By late Wednesday afternoon, 15 organizations had joined in supporting the Dayton and Swanson court filings, ranging from hospitals to contractors to cities.

Also on Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed a petition by four state senators wanting the high court to bar judges from deciding how money is spent in a shutdown. The senators said the state may only spend money the Legislature appropriates and the courts have no such authority.

The Senate filed its own petition in Ramsey County, saying the court lacks authority to spend money, and if Dayton calls a special legislative session plenty of time remains to pass a state budget, so the court should stay out of the matter.

There is no indication when Judge Kathleen Gearin would make a decision on whether the courts will decide on state spending after July 1, or how such decisions would be made.

A shutdown could happen when the current budget runs dry on July 1 if lawmakers and Dayton do not enact a two-year state budget. Legislators passed a Republican-written budget in the final days of the regular legislative session, which ended a month ago today, but Dayton vetoed the package.

Dayton wants to spend $35.8 billion, fueled in part by a tax increase, in the next two years. Republicans say they will not approve a budget more than $34 billion and reject tax increases.

City leaders told reporters that their citizens will notice public safety cuts if Local Government Aid and other state payments stop during a shutdown. They asked Gearin to keep those payments coming.

Floodwood Mayor Jeff Kletscher and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said cities will begin laying off workers around Aug. 1 if they no longer receive Local Government Aid.

Kletscher said that with four full-time and four part-time employees, his community would feel the impact of an LGA cut-off. He said he needs certified police officers and water plant operators on duty. The nearest law enforcement office that can send help is 40 miles away, he said.

"This potential shutdown affects Main Street," Kletscher said.

The League of Minnesota Cities' court petition said that cities cannot keep public service programs running without LGA. Morris, for instance, spends half of its budget on public safety needs and 64 percent of its budget comes from LGA. In Crookston, nearly half of its budget goes to public safety and 70 percent of its revenue comes from LGA.

Dayton has been meeting about the budget behind closed doors with key Democrats.

"He is firming up what he wants in a final package," Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said after leaving Dayton's office.

Stumpf, a top education Democrat, said that Dayton is meeting with lawmaker experts in individual spending areas in a final push for a budget.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said in an appearance with Dayton that Republicans need to compromise on total spending. "Republicans are sitting on the same number they were in January."

Agreeing with Dayton, Bakk said more money is needed to prevent eliminating health-care coverage for 140,000 Minnesotans, which he said Republican budget plans would do.

"There are things we are unwilling to do," Bakk said.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.