ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota’s top leaders holed up in a generic conference room for a second day on Saturday, trying to break through the budget gridlock with an impending government shutdown only six days away. They emerged after almost eight hours with little to say except that they planned to keep talking Sunday.
After months of public disagreements and recriminations, Gov. Mark Dayton and top Republican lawmakers said they are committed to avoiding a shutdown. The Democratic governor said a privacy pact to stay quiet about the content of negotiations is critical to getting a deal done.
“We all see the possibility of working things out to avoid a shutdown and we’re all in favor of keeping that effort going to try to realize that goal,” Dayton said after the talks.
The discussions took place in the State Office Building across the street from the Capitol, with Dayton advisers and key lawmakers responsible for specific pieces of the budget shuttling in and out as negotiations turned from higher education to the environment, then health and welfare programs and finally, taxes. Reporters and photographers loitered outside the room, waiting for details from the meetings on the other side of glass windows sheathed by mini-blinds.
“We have a considerable road trip ahead of us,” said Rep. Jim Abeler, the Republican House leader on health and social service spending, after talks in his area finished.
Along with taxes, health and welfare spending is the most contentious budget area between Dayton and the Republican Legislature.
The Democratic governor and GOP-led Legislature have spent months deadlocked over the level of spending in the next two-year state budget and how to pay for it. Republicans insist on a firm limit of $34 billion, the amount the state would collect without adding new revenue, while Dayton wants to raise almost $2 billion from new income taxes on the highest earners.
Minnesota’s current state budget runs through Thursday. Without a new budget in place starting Friday, most of state government will shut down, barricading state parks, jeopardizing services for the vulnerable, suspending road work and sending home tens of thousands of state employees.
The intensity of negotiations has picked up as the shutdown becomes increasingly likely, while the tone of the comments has taken on a more positive spin since Friday. But the main players haven’t said whether they’re any closer to a deal.
“We remain committed to no shutdown,” said GOP Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch. “I’ve always said that a shutdown isn’t necessary. We can get this done.”
The day had its lighter moments. Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers used a lunch break to toss a football on the Capitol lawn with House Majority Leader Matt Dean and Rep. Steve Gottwalt, one of the health and welfare negotiators, and then joined Dayton for the elevator ride back to the fourth floor.
The two most powerful men in state government wore open-collar shirts and khakis as a light rain fell outside.
Dayton and Zellers are sequestered in the conference room with seven other leaders. The Democratic side includes Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen and top Dayton finance adviser Jim Schowalter. The Republican team includes Koch, Dean, Deputy Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel and Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, who has control over spending bills as head of the House Ways and Means Committee.
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)