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Shutdown notebook: Dayton changes, gets DFLers added to budget-a-thon

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's budget battle took place in court and in the Capitol Thursday.

In the Capitol, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders prepared for Friday and Saturday marathon budget talks that for much of Thursday remained in doubt.

Dayton, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, on Wednesday agreed to the Friday and Saturday budget lock-in, but after Dayton said he thought top legislative Democrats should be added to the group Koch questioned whether the talks should continue as scheduled.

By late Thursday afternoon, Koch agreed to negotiate even with House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.

"On multiple occasions, Gov. Dayton has reneged on hand-shake agreements during negotiations and yesterday's developments were just the latest example," Koch said. "While I'm frustrated by Gov. Dayton's decision to break the terms of our meeting schedule, I will participate in the budget meetings as scheduled for Friday and Saturday."

The two sides have made no progress on a two-year state budget, despite regular meetings since January, with increased talks near the end of the regular legislative session in May. The budget ends on June 30, and without a new budget in place state government could shut down.

Surprising crowd

Judge Kathleen Gearin walked into her St. Paul courtroom, greeted by about 120 spectators and around 40 lawyers, with another couple dozen she could not see in a hallway outside.

"Wow," Gearin said as she sat down to begin a hearing on whether the courts should let state programs spend money even without a budget.

The afternoon hearing was moved to a larger courtroom and a newspaper and a video photographer were allowed to record the event.

Legal minds aplenty

About 40 attorneys, most hoping to keep state money flowing to their clients, crowded into the Ramsey County courtroom Thursday.

They included such notables as former Attorney General Mike Hatch, representing a disabled woman; former Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, speaking for the House; and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, two-time governor candidate and former state lawmaker.

No rookie

Gearin is no newcomer to the spotlight.

She ruled in late 2009 that then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty unconstitutionally made unilateral budget cuts, a decision the state Supreme Court upheld a few months later.

And in the 2008 U.S. Senate recount, she sat on the State Canvassing Board. Ironically, sitting next to her during the ordeal was Magnuson, who on Thursday represented the state House in the shutdown hearing.

Early shutdown

The lights went out in the Ramsey County Courthouse Thursday as more than a hundred people stood in line, waiting for courtroom doors to open for the shutdown hearing.

"The shutdown came early," Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, quipped.

"Now we need a 'lights on,'" he added, talking about a plan he supports for the Legislature to continue state funding even if no overall budget bills have been signed into law.

Documents pour in

More than 70 court documents were filed by people interested in the shutdown case, most this week.

They came in so fast, Gearin said, that she had not had time to read them all before Thursday's court hearing. Seven arrived in her office while she was presiding over the morning part of the hearing.

Most documents were from organizations who want to continue receiving state money after the current budget ends June 30.

Quick decisions

In the first hour of Thursday's hearing, Gearin rejected Dayton's request to order a mediator to help produce a budget agreement between him and the Legislature.

Dayton had argued that since he and lawmakers had not agreed on a budget, some help is needed. The House and Senate opposed the idea.

Gearin also turned down a request that four Republican senators become involved in the case.

The senators argued that courts have no right to decide how the state spends money. That, they said, is up to the Legislature.

Gearin said the Senate already was at the table.

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