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Howes-Dayton meeting may have set stage for budget deal

ST. PAUL -- A pair of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, with chips on the side, may have been just what the budget doctor ordered.

That was the menu for a secret 45-minute Monday lunch at St. Cloud's Jules Bistro between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker. Their meeting may have laid the groundwork for a state budget deal framework announced Thursday evening.

"We talked about things that he could offer that we (Republicans) would not just immediately reject," the northern Minnesota lawmaker said in an interview.

Howes said he could not take credit for the offer Dayton made on Thursday, which was based on a June 30 GOP offer, but the veteran lawmaker would be a key if it moves forward.

Howes is chairman of the House committee that funds public works construction projects, such as fixing state building roofs and building flood-protection structures. So he and Dayton spend time over the ham and cheese talking bonding, the method of funding construction projects.

Howes has kept a bonding bill handy since the beginning of the legislative session and altered it in recent days in an attempt to satisfy Dayton.

"I took some things out, reduced some things, added some things," Howes said. "It still is basically his bill."

Originally, Dayton proposed about $500 million in projects and asked legislators to add a like amount.

In discussing the budget framework, Dayton and Republican leaders left it unclear whether a bonding bill was a definite part of the agreement.

"I'm hoping we can work out a bonding bill," Dayton said, adding that the public works bill is not essential for the overall budget agreement to go forward.

Dayton said he would work with Democrats to help provide enough votes since a bonding bill requires more votes than there are Republicans.

Howes said he crafted the bill so the bill could get needed Democratic votes. "I strongly believe I put it together so that the Democrats will think it is fair."

The bill will have funding for flood-prevention efforts statewide, but especially in the Red River Valley. However, Howes said, as it stands now it does not contain tornado relief for Wadena or Minneapolis.

Howes, who said his talk with Dayton went well beyond bonding, was happy Thursday.

"I am pleased with the offer he made," Howes said.

Howes said he told House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, he was going to meet with Dayton and afterwards briefed him on some of their discussion.

"The speaker has given me a long leash," Howes said.

The Howes-Dayton summit came after Dayton had met with other moderate Republicans. Dayton's office called Howes on Monday to set up the Tuesday lunch, with no staff members or anyone else present.

Since both ordered the same lunch, "the waitress thought we already had compromised," Howes said.

But, Howes noted, some compromise was left because Dayton drank Diet Coke while he sipped coffee.

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