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Budget talks back on as shutdown looms Friday

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's top politicians resume talks today after Gov. Mark Dayton refused a chance to offer hope that state government will remain open when the budget runs out Friday.

"Either one is possible, either we will or we won't," Dayton said about a shutdown. "I'm not going to lay odds on that."

The Democratic governor's comments came after a Monday meeting of less than an hour with the top two Republican legislators. They emerged to say negotiations will continue this morning and Dayton's office reported he could be involved most of the day.

Otherwise, the trio left their "cone of silence" intact and refused to discuss any budget negotiations specifics.

However, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, did speak out in a controversial email to state employees in which they agreed with an editorial about Dayton's negotiations: "This is not a compromise. This is hostage taking."

Dayton, Zellers, Koch and key aides met all day Friday and Saturday, but talks abruptly broke off Sunday after just over an hour, with no explanation.

The three are heading talks aimed at avoiding a government shutdown that will begin Friday if they do not agree on a new budget. Republicans want to spend $34 billion in the next two years, while Dayton's budget calls for $35.8 billion, helped by a $1.8 billion tax increase on the state's best earners.

Making the budget-writing exercise more difficult is the need to fill a $5 billion deficit at the same time.

Zellers and Dayton defended the pledge of silence about budget talks.

"We can have frank and honest conversations," Zellers said.

Added Dayton: "We tried the other way, the public process, and you have seen the impasse. ... We are doing everything we can to resolve the impasse."

Zellers and Koch asked "some very good questions," Dayton said of their Monday meeting. He said he gave them some answers and told them he would have to think about other questions and get back to them.

The speaker could not give a real deadline for finishing the budget.

It would take time to do the technical work, such as rewriting and printing bills, but he has not asked when an agreement needs to be made for that budget bills still to pass by the end of Thursday. Many in the Capitol say it already is too late for the physical work to be done in time.

Zellers said Minnesotans understand why this year's budget talks are taking longer than usual: "Because this is a very different legislative makeup, because these are tough economic times, these are difficult budget items to work through, it is taking us a little longer. I think most Minnesotans would say do it right, get it right the first time and if takes a little longer it is worth the while."

Koch, who stood next to Dayton and Zellers after their meeting but did not talk, joined the speaker in a letter they sent to a state employees saying that they do not want a government shutdown.

The email promoted a Republican-passed budget while criticizing Dayton. Some employees did not like the message.

Executive Director Jim Monroe of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, state government's second largest union, said, "Many of our members have termed it (an) inappropriate 'political' letter."

In a statement, Monroe told Zellers and Koch that they support Dayton "and do not trust what tricks your party will pull during a legislative session. Leadership is about compromise and fairness for the common good, not ideology that allows the rich to get richer. You are jeopardizing our members' livelihoods and financial well being by not compromising with Gov. Dayton."

Zellers told reporters that he and Koch were just trying to express concern and tell employees "we don't want a shutdown."

He said it was supposed to go to all state workers, but his office does not have a complete email list.

While the speaker said that he has heard no complaints about the email, a Dayton spokeswoman said their office has received several.

GOP staffers provided the media with letters from Dayton commissioners that blamed Republicans for the budget problems.

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