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State leaders begin marathon negotiation on state budget

ST. PAUL -- House Speaker Kurt Zellers cheerily welcomed the governor and other legislative leaders to his office this morning as two days of intensive budget talks began a week before state government could shut down if they are not successful.

Neither Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton nor Republican legislative leaders gave a hint that anything new would come out of the talks.

"I'm open to whatever happens," Dayton said before Zellers, R-Maple Grove, shook his hand and ushered him into the speaker's office in the State Office Building, across the street from Dayton's office.

Zellers proposed the lock-in budget negotiations as a way to break the stalemate. He proposed just he, Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, be in the talks, but that number more than doubled. Koch brought along her deputy, Sen. Geoff Michel of Edina, and Dayton brought legislative Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook and Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis.

Also in the room were Commissioner Jim Schowalter of Minnesota Management and Budget and Chairwoman Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, of the House Ways and Means Committee. No legislative staff members were allowed in, but they and legislative committee chairmen remained nearby for consultation.

In one week, the government could be shut down if no budget deal is reached.

On Thursday, a Ramsey County judge heard arguments for and against the courts ordering some state spending if a budget is not in place. She said she will not rule on the case until next week.

The state Constitution forbids state spending unless approved by the Legislature.

Republicans who hold House and Senate majorities say they will not approve more than $34 billion in the two-year budget due to begin in a week. And they will not consider a tax increase.

Dayton's budget proposal is for $35.8 billion, which includes $1.8 billion in new taxes.

Lawmakers passed GOP-written budget bills before adjourning on May 23, but Dayton vetoed them. Since then, the two sides have agreed on nothing, including who should be included in budget talks.

Koch complained when Dayton said he wanted Bakk and Thissen involved because the governor, and two top Republican leaders already had decided it would be a three-person discussion. But Koch relented and allowed top DFLers to take part.

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.