ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders met briefly Monday, but kept a tight clamp on whether their private meetings have produced any progress toward a budget deal that would head off a government shutdown at the end of the week.
It was the fourth day in a row of meetings between the Democratic governor and the Legislature’s top two Republicans, Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch. Monday’s meeting lasted less than an hour, after which the three emerged together and told the press: No details on whether the two sides have gotten any closer to erasing their disagreement over the size of the next two-year state budget.
“We can have a candid conversation. Everybody doesn’t have to watch every word,” said Dayton, referring to the arrangement as “the cone of silence.”
Dayton and the GOP leaders said they’d meet again Tuesday morning with other lawmakers and administration negotiators. The new state budget must be in place by July 1, meaning that state government would cease most operations after the clock strikes midnight Thursday into Friday.
Earlier Monday, the Republican leaders held a news conference and demanded Dayton call a special session so they could pass some budget bills that would prevent or at least soften the pain of a government shutdown. But, appearing with Koch and Zellers, Dayton said again he would not call legislators back to St. Paul until a full budget deal is set.
The Republicans had gathered in a park next to the Stillwater Lift Bridge, saying the span that links Minnesota and Wisconsin is the kind of vital state service that could close in a shutdown. However, shortly before they started, the Minnesota Department of Transportation said the bridge would likely stay open no matter what.
Republicans have been firm in their insistence that the state not spend more than $34 billion in its next budget, or the amount that state coffers are currently projected to collect over two years. Dayton wants another $1.8 billion or so in new revenue, mostly in new taxes on upper earners, in order to blunt what he says are unacceptable cuts to medical assistance, college campuses, transit programs and other government services.
While Republicans at the Stillwater news conference stuck with the joint vow to not disclose details of the negotiations, they returned to a message they’ve been hammering for months, that the state must cap its spending within existing revenue collections.
“Most Minnesotans are not seeing an increase in their family budget,” said Zellers, R-Maple Grove. “We think we should be able to prioritize within our budget and live within our means.”
A ruling was expected this week from Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin, who is deciding how a shutdown would be handled. Gearin is weighing who has the legal authority to continue critical state services.
Also Monday, Hennepin County — the state’s largest — sent layoff notices to 1,300 employees in anticipation of a shutdown. Most went to employees in the Human Services and Public Health departments, which county officials said provide safety net programs like food support, and services like restaurant inspection and disease management.
The Department of Transportation released word Monday afternoon that it had added the lift bridge to a list of core services it would argue should be kept up even in a shutdown. The department said the primary reason would be so that ambulances could get across.
Republican leaders, who’d been prepared to use the bridge as an example of the shutdown’s consequences, said they were heartened by the DOT’s announcement but that other bridges, road projects and many other services might not be so lucky.
“The message remains the same,” said Koch, R-Buffalo. “Governor, call us back, let us work on the bills on which we have near agreement. The shutdown is not needed.”
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