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Still Ample Time For A Minn. Budget Breakthrough

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The dead zone surrounding Minnesota budget negotiations doesn’t mean the session is headed for a breakdown. At least not yet.

The state’s new governor and new legislative majorities both have too much to lose by letting their budget standoff go into overtime and a possible government shutdown. They still have two full weeks — an eternity at the Capitol — to find a compromise they can live with, if not love.

“We can get this done,” Deputy Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel said last week. “There is enough time.”

Progress on erasing a $5 billion deficit has been hard to detect since Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and a Republican-dominated slate of lawmakers took office in January. Dayton’s proposal to raise top-end income taxes landed with a thud in the tax-averse Legislature. GOP plans to cut spending and overhaul state health programs faced Democratic objections for relying on money that might not come through.

But Republicans risk their control of the entire Legislature — a goal that eluded them for 38 years until the last election — if the impasse leads to a shutdown that angers the public. Fresh-faced GOP leaders have projected a can-do attitude since they took over, but that reputation could rub off if they’re blamed for closing state parks and driver’s license stations in a shutdown that would start in July.

Tea party newcomers in the Republican caucuses don’t want to yield on spending more than $34 billion, but others who prioritize an on-time finish could strike a deal that would attract Democratic support needed to roll up a passing margin. Dayton has shown openness to revenue sources other than income taxes, but nothing has emerged as a deal-maker.

“The governor won an election, too. I think somehow they forget that,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said of Republicans. “I think they’d be wise to remember that. You know, I don’t care if it’s in your business, in your home, in your church or in your union, nobody gets it all their way.”

Dayton has a couple of built-in advantages — he doesn’t have to face voters for three more years, unlike all 201 lawmakers who will be on the ballot next year. Unlike Republican predecessor Tim Pawlenty, Dayton isn’t looking to move up in politics when he’s done with being governor, giving legislators a little less leverage over him. And he campaigned statewide for almost two years on taxing the rich.

But the governor, too, could alienate core supporters if political gridlock sends state workers home without paychecks this summer. So far, public employee unions are firmly behind his push for high-end income taxes, but that might not hold in a prolonged shutdown.

Once the dispute reaches the point of closing parts of state government, there are few other natural backstops for an agreement. Some state functions would keep going under standing appropriations and courts would be expected to keep essential workers such as prison guards, State Patrol and even zookeepers on the job.

The state constitution requires the Legislature’s regular session to end May 23.

There are signals that things could come together by then: The GOP has started sending through standalone policy proposals including an overhaul of the MinnesotaCare health program and a tax cheat crackdown, even though the provisions were also embedded in budget bills. That shows Republicans are prepared to decouple the budget from policy Dayton dislikes.

Dayton and the legislative leaders have been meeting regularly over breakfast all year, giving them a line of communication that seemed non-existent between top lawmakers and the governor during the Pawlenty era.

Even the new personalities play into the session’s prospects.

Dayton is far more earnest than Pawlenty, who would sometimes lash out at lawmakers with sharp comments. GOP Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers go out of their way to stay upbeat before the cameras. The two sides haven’t displayed the acrimony that marked the relationship between Pawlenty and his Democratic alter egos in the Legislature.

Dayton deferred to Koch, standing in the back of the room at his latest news conference, when asked about the session’s prospects.

“Senator Koch says she was optimistic, hopeful. She’s nodding her head still, so I’ll be glad to be proven wrong on that one,” he said.

Minnesota has only one shutdown in its history, when a deadlock between Pawlenty and Democrats over health care cuts and school funding shuttered parts of government for eight days. Nearly 9,000 state workers were locked out, highway rest areas closed and services ranging from new driver’s license applications to refugee job counseling were suspended. Public outrage was raised.

That’s another factor that could make a difference as lawmakers contemplate their choices now and later. Legislators who lived through the shutdown, including Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, have stories of being heckled with shouts of “Get back to work” at July 4 parades.

“On some days it was sort of like the wave at a stadium,” said Senjem, who isn’t wavering from the GOP “live within our means” position.

But, he added, a shutdown might not changes the choices for compromise.

“It’s as easy to do in May as it is in October,” he said.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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