Slideshow: 2011 Top Local Headlines

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Tight budgets led to the longest state government shutdown in U.S. history and Mother Nature rarely left Minnesota’s headlines in 2011.

When the Legislature met last January, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican House and Senate leaders faced a $5 billion budget shortfall. He refused to cut as deeply as they wanted and they wouldn’t pass his proposed income tax hikes.

After the session ended in a stalemate, the government shut down and Minnesota became synonymous with political dysfunction. The 20-day shutdown ended with a mix of cuts, borrowing and delays in school-aid payments.

Along the way, the Legislature voted to let voters decide next November whether the Minnesota Constitution should define marriage as between one man and one woman. The GOP majority pushed the amendment through the Legislature, but it remains to be seen how effective the party will be in 2012 after being rocked by scandals.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch abruptly resigned her leadership job in December and admitted she had an “inappropriate relationship” with a Senate employee. About the same time, the front-runner to take control of the state party dropped out after news broke of an arrest for an expired auto registration and an earlier sexual-harassment lawsuit. The Minnesota GOP needed a new leader after its chairman, deputy chairman and executive director all left the party in a financial mess, with debts between $500,000 and $1.2 million.

Lawmakers resumed the stadium debate as the Minnesota Vikings staked a claim on a former Army munitions plant site in Arden Hills even as Minneapolis leaders lobbied to keep the team downtown. Both sides need taxpayers’ help, so stadium supporters were encouraged by a December financial forecast that predicted an $876 million surplus in 2012.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s campaign for the Republican nomination for president never caught fire and he dropped out after the Iowa straw poll in August. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann won that straw poll, but her star was soon eclipsed by other candidates.

When Minnesotans tore their eyes away from politics, the next story was often right outside. The coldest air mass in years hit the state last January, dropping the temperature to 46 degrees below zero in International Falls. Seven months later, Twin Cities sweated through the highest dew point ever recorded there.

On May 22, a tornado struck Minneapolis, killing one person, injuring 48 and rendering more than 100 homes unlivable. Damage was estimated at more than $100 million.

A lightning strike Aug. 18 in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness sparked one of the state’s largest wildfires in decades. It burned about 145 square miles and cost $22.3 million to contain.

Biologists fought a different hazard to the south. In August, scientists found DNA evidence of invasive Asian carp in the St. Croix River as far upstream as St. Croix Falls dam. Another setback came in December when Asian carp DNA was found above the Coon Rapids Dam, a key barrier keeping them from migrating up the Mississippi River.

Inside Minnesota courtrooms in 2011, Two Minnesota women who claimed they were helping Somalia’s poor were convicted of conspiring to funnel money to al-Shabab, which the U.S. says has ties to al-Qaida. The women were the first of 20 people charged in Minnesota’s al-Shabab cases to stand trial.

Investigators believe at least 21 men have left Minnesota — home to the country’s largest Somali community — to join al-Shabab. With the death of Farah Mohamed Beledi in 2011, two Minnesotans have now been confirmed as conducting suicide attacks in Somalia.

Former nurse William Melchert-Dinkel of Faribault was convicted in March of aiding in the suicide deaths of an Englishman and a Canadian woman. Prosecutors said he hunted for depressed people in online suicide chat rooms and offered step-by-step instructions for taking their own lives.

2011 was a year Minnesotans learned about the dangers of synthetic drugs that can be purchased over the Internet and at some head shops. At least two young men died of overdosing on them, including a teen who died in the spring after a party in Blaine where a hallucinogen called 2C-E was passed around. Nearly a dozen young people were hospitalized.

The two-year ordeal of two American hikers held in Iran finally ended in 2011. Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer were among three hikers arrested in 2009 while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border. The 29-year-olds were released in September; the third hiker, Sarah Shourd, was freed the year before. Bauer, a Minnesota native, plans to marry Shourd in May.

Anti-Wall Street protesters occupied a plaza outside the government center in Minneapolis in October. The demonstrations were noisy and often eye-catching, but there were no mass arrests like those seen elsewhere.

Minnesotans also said goodbye to a pair of local celebrities and sports icons.

Eleanor Mondale, the daughter of former Vice President Walter Mondale, died in September at 51. She had been diagnosed with brain cancer years earlier. She was a sometime actor, a former entertainment reporter, a radio-show host and always in the public eye. At a memorial service attended by more than 1,000 people, she was remembered for her irrepressible personality and love of animals.

Former Minnesota Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard died in May of an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone at 28. His death became a cautionary tale about the dangers of his sport. A published report said an exam of Boogaard’s brain found he suffered from a degenerative brain ailment caused by repeated blows to the head.

Harmon Killebrew helped defined baseball for a generation of Minnesota Twins fans. The Hall of Famer, who swatted 573 home runs in his long major league career, died in May of esophageal cancer. He was 74. Despite the menacing nickname “Killer,” he was remembered for his softer side as a man who enjoyed a milkshake after each game and who always had time to help a rookie.

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