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State leaders hope good relationships pave way to good budget

Don Davis/State Capitol Bureau Under the watchful eye of photographers and reporters, Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday looks over papers presented by Mankato university students who took three days to walk to the state Capitol.

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's budget negotiators said they will rely on their good relationships to conclude a contentious budget deal that plugs a $5 billion deficit.

However, in separate Thursday interviews with the governor and House speaker, as well as a news conference with Senate leaders, no progress was apparent with 11 days remaining before the state Constitution requires legislators to quit work for the year.

In fact, there were signs Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republicans who control the Legislature could find themselves further apart in coming days, and talk escalated that a budget would be finished in a special legislative session and maybe even so late that there would be a government shutdown on July 1.

As Dayton leaves for the governor's fishing opener near Grand Rapids at noon today, not returning until Saturday night, legislative budget negotiators expect to work long hours through the weekend and all lawmakers plan to work today and Saturday.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said she hopes legislative budgets can be set by Monday, allowing Dayton and legislative leaders to begin final budget talks.

Koch repeatedly refused to tell reporters if legislative leaders would move from their $34 billion overall two-year budget proposal (Dayton prefers to spend $37 billion). However, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said it is possible that legislative budget negotiations could end up with plan to spend less than $34 billion.

"In some cases, the conferees have come to a lower number," he said.

If legislative numbers drop, that increases the difference with Dayton, who already terms Republican budget cuts "Draconian."

In his Forum Communications interview, Dayton said that he and the Legislature could reach a budget agreement before the mandatory May 23 legislative adjournment date, but sounded less optimistic than in recent weeks.

"I think it is possible," Dayton said.

In a decade of executive branch experience, he said, he has seen many times when two sides have come together in short order "under pressure of a deadline."

Even so, Dayton expressed frustration.

"I still haven't seen their budget," Dayton said, echoing comments he has made for weeks.

Earlier this year, House and Senate GOP leaders released their budget outlines, saying how much they would spend in each budget area.

But on Thursday they refused to say how much they would spend in areas like education, health care and public safety.

Koch said negotiators were using "working targets" that are changing.

Lawmakers and Dayton have agreed on one budget, funding agriculture programs, although legislative budget negotiators are looking at making further cuts in the Agriculture Department. Eight other budget bills and a tax bill remain open.

The two biggest areas of spending, public education and health programs, are to be ready for Dayton to examine when he returns from the fishing opener. Smaller spending bills may be, too.

Dayton appeared to question Republicans' ability to produce a smaller budget than they planned.

"They can't even produce a $34 billion budget," he said, a reference to his complaints that Republicans have based many program costs on what he considers unproven estimates.

In the interview, Dayton repeated what he has said all along, that he cannot begin negotiations until he sees the full Republican legislative budget. If Koch's estimate for wrapping up negotiations are correct, that would leave Dayton and legislative leaders less than a week to work out a two-year state budget.

Zellers said he is confident the work can be completed because Dayton and GOP leaders get along well.

"This is a game of personal relationships," Zellers said, calling Dayton a "very, very genuine man." "That kind of thing is not lost in the end process."

"I like them personally," Dayton said about GOP leaders.

Regardless of their friendship, however, Dayton said that Republicans need to produce a budget, like he did three months ago.

"That is totally their responsibility," he said, adding that he can do nothing to push them along.

Republicans refuse to consider tax increases, while Dayton has put higher taxes on the richest Minnesotans at the core of his budget plan.

While saying he is willing to negotiate, the message Dayton says he gets from the public is the opposite: "A whole lot of people tell me to hang in there."

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

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.