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Today is last legislative day ... for now

ST. PAUL -- All but the most naive know this really is not the final day the Minnesota Legislature meets this year.

The state Constitution says today is the end, but Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republicans who run the Legislature are no closer to agreement today than they were when the Legislature convened on Jan. 4.

Already, the discussion has turned to a special legislative session and a possible government shutdown. Only Dayton can call a special session, but likely would not do so until a firm budget deal is reached.

A series of Sunday meetings between Dayton and chief legislative negotiators of budget bills produced no breakthrough with legislators and the governor facing a midnight deadline today to fill a $5 billion deficit in the next two-year budget. Dayton and Republicans are $1.8 billion apart.

Legislative leaders in higher education, public safety, courts, health care and other budget areas met with Dayton and his aides throughout Sunday. But there was little talk about the budget.

If there is no budget deal by midnight, which almost no one in the Capitol expects, a special legislative session will be needed. If a budget is not written by July 1, state government will begin to shut down.

Republicans want to spend $34 billion in the next two years, while Dayton's target is $35.8 billion.

Dayton says he will veto all the budget bills if there is no overall agreement with GOP leaders.

"We had a nice discussion," Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said as he left a meeting with Dayton and the governor's staff.

Nornes, the top House higher education negotiator, said the budget barely was discussed. There was discussion, but no decision, on capping Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system tuitions, he said.

"There was really no discussion on the total dollars to be spent or cut," Nornes said.

The story was similar for other budget areas: Good discussions, but no significant decisions.

Legislative leaders pledged to keep working for a budget deal.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said lawmakers will work until midnight, hoping for a budget breakthrough.

Just before an afternoon meeting between leaders and Dayton ended, protesters took over microphones the media set up to get reaction to the meeting.

Among those talking was a representative from the Welfare Rights Committee, an organization that for 20 years has demanded that the state continue to fund welfare and health-care programs. Other groups also protested cuts being proposed by GOP lawmakers.

Chants of "tax the rich" echoed through the Capitol in support of Dayton's proposal to raise taxes on the richest 2 percent of Minnesotans. Republicans will not agree to his plan.

Zellers said legislative negotiations and Dayton are agreeing on things they have in common, but he and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said no progress was made on the budget.

However, Koch said that if policy items are negotiated, that can save money since Republicans want to reform government in a way that cost taxpayers less.

"The reforms that are embedded in here are very important," she said.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.