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Minnesota budget: 'Time is growing short'

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers brief reporters Tuesday on budget talks aimed at avoiding a government shutdown. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Today is the day for a state budget deal, key negotiators say, if one is possible before a Friday government shutdown.

"We recognize time is growing short," Gov. Mark Dayton said when leaving budget talks Tuesday. "We recognize tomorrow is when we have to make our final breakthroughs or we won't have been successful."

If there is an agreement between Dayton and Republican legislative leaders, 200 lawmakers from around the state will be called in for a special legislative session on Thursday.

"They are standing at the ready," Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said.

The Democratic governor and GOP leaders continued to refuse to give any indication about how close they are to a deal.

Without an overall budget deal, authorization to spend money ends Thursday night, setting the stage for a partial state government shutdown on Friday.

"The time is down to hours," Dayton said.

A Tuesday court ruling provides continued funding to keep the judicial branch operating and the Legislature has money to keep going for at least a few days into July.

A Ramsey County judge is expected to release an order today or Thursday that could keep some state programs funded. Dayton submitted a list of what he considers services so essential that they should continue even without a budget, but the judge will make the final decision about what continues to operate.

The situation comes about because Democrat Dayton and Republicans who control the Minnesota House and Senate do not agree on a two-year budget that is to begin Friday.

Republicans want to limit the budget to $34 billion, and reject tax increases. Dayton's proposed $35.8 billion budget includes a $1.8 billion tax increase of the state's highest earners.

Little has changed since Dayton was sworn into office on Jan. 3 and legislators, including many news ones, took office the next day.

Most Capitol observers other than top budget negotiators, who have taken a pledge not to talk about negotiations, appear to expect a shutdown. Negotiators have looked gloomy when leaving talks the past few days.

Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said they think if an agreement is reached today, Dayton can call a special legislative session for Thursday, when many of the remaining budget bills can be passed.

However, Koch said, "you may have to do some temporary funding" in the more complex areas, such as a bill funding things like health-care programs for the poor, elderly and disabled.

Dayton, the only person who can call legislators back to work, said he would call a special session only if there is an overall budget agreement, not to pass bills funding just parts of state government.

The governor, wearing a stern look, gave no hint a deal is at hand.

"We are up against the deadline," he said. "Deadlines are what move people if they are to make an agreement. ... We either will reach an agreement or we won't."

The talks broke off Tuesday afternoon so Dayton and lawmakers could attend a memorial service for Sen. Linda Scheid, who died earlier this month. Legislative leaders said, however, their staffs and key lawmakers remained at work.

Dayton said that both sides needed to work before today's resumption of talks.

"It is really more about internal discussions, about what people are willing or not willing to do," Dayton said.

Overall, those in the talks remained tight-lipped about what was happening. They called it a "cone of silence" and "vow of silence," an effort to keep public rhetoric at a minimum.

The silent treatment affects most members of the Legislature, who spokesmen said were not being told details of the negotiations.

While nine people are in the main negotiations, committee chairmen and others are working on specific details. For instance, legislators who deal with health and human services budget issues met Monday and Tuesday.

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