Quiet Capitol, quiet government

ST. PAUL -- A lone legislative staffer strolled around the Minnesota Capitol rotunda talking on her mobile telephone at midday Friday, the only person in the three-story open area.

Gated Capitol
Barricades prevent drivers from going in front of the closed Minnesota Capitol. The building is locked until a new state budget is passed. (Don Davis/Forum Communications Co.)

ST. PAUL -- A lone legislative staffer strolled around the Minnesota Capitol rotunda talking on her mobile telephone at midday Friday, the only person in the three-story open area.

Far above her, flag staffs on the Capitol roof were empty, as were those at the nearby Veterans' Services Building, lacking staff to hoist them each morning and lower them at night.

Barricades blocked many Capitol-area parking lots, including one directly in front of the marble building.

And the horde of media that set up Camp Impasse to glean even the smallest sliver of budget negotiations information outside the governor's office was gone, replaced by quiet and empty space.

Normally before a holiday weekend, a steady stream of tourists would look over the massive marble columns inside the Capitol, admire artwork and see where legislators did their work. Not so Friday, or for the foreseeable future, because the 106-year-old Capitol stood as an example of what Minnesotans are facing: A government shutdown that turned much of state government as quiet as its iconic headquarters building.


After the deafening noise of partisan rhetoric Thursday night as the shutdown neared, nothing happened on the budget Friday, and the chance of budget talks before Tuesday was slim to none.

"Minnesotans should expect us to work on this every day, all the time, until we get a budget deal," House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said in an interview.

As the shutdown approached Thursday night, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton pledged: "I will continue -- tonight, tomorrow and however long it takes -- to find a fair and balanced compromise. I welcome Republicans to join with me; my door is always open."

Dayton's office door was, indeed, open Friday, even if the Capitol building was closed. But Zellers and other Republican leaders did not walk through it. Zellers was willing to wait for Dayton to issue an invitation. Many in the Capitol said that was wise, considering slashing remarks both sides made in the heat of battle late Thursday.

After six days of tense marathon budget talks, aimed at avoiding a shutdown, Friday was the opposite in the Capitol. But for about 22,000 state employees and Minnesotans who rely on their services, the tension was just beginning.

The state has 11,665 full-time equivalent employees still on duty, providing what a judge deemed critical essential services.

Even if Dayton and Republicans leaders return to budget talks Tuesday, there is no hint at how they will break the impasse that has existed since Dayton took office Jan. 3 and legislators the next day.

Republicans practically begged Dayton to call the Legislature back into special session, something only the governor can do, so lawmakers could pass a temporary budget while details of a full budget were worked out. But Dayton repeated that he would not call lawmakers back to work until a complete budget agreement was in place.


The shutdown began because Dayton and the GOP could not bridge what ended up being a $1.4 billion gap. Without a budget, most state programs have no authority to spend money.

Republicans said they would spend no more than $34 billion for the two years beginning today, while Dayton originally wanted to spend $37 billion.

Dayton originally wanted more than $3 billion in tax increases. By the time negotiations broke down, Dayton had lowered his tax plan to only affecting Minnesotans earning more than $1 million a year, he said, to bring in $1.4 billion.

The Legislature is funded into July and a court ruling allowed the judicial branch to keep operating.

While much of state government was shut down, Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin of Ramsey County District Court this week ruled that a third of state employees should remain on the job providing essential functions such as offered by the State Patrol, prison guards and state and federally subsidized health care services.

Democrats blame the shutdown on Republican refusal to join Dayton in a tax-increase proposal.

"They never offered one penny of new tax revenue," Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said. "The governor has said all along that he wasn't going to sign an all-cuts budget."

Bakk, the Senate minority leader, said he met with Republicans to explore other options to raise revenue, such as raising cigarettes or alcohol taxes.


"They said 'Tom, you're not listening. We're not going to agree to any new taxes. Not a single cent,'" Bakk said. "I explored every option I could."

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said time away from the Capitol could put pressure on lawmakers.

"We need all kinds of heat both on the governor and the Republican leadership," Huntley said.

While Huntley said support back home has been good, statewide it is mixed: "From other parts of the state, we're getting emails saying 'you should all quit.' The public has a right to be mad."

Zellers said that his members are not afraid of receiving criticism while marching in holiday parades this weekend. Many of his House Republicans have told him they are getting plenty of support back home, the speaker said.

"They are not in any way hiding from the budgets we have passed," Zellers said of a series of spending bills Republicans supported but Dayton vetoed.

Zellers could not offer a way out of the impasse, but said that he and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, will look into what more they can do to reach a budget deal.

"I did think we were really, really close," Zellers said.


The Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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