With nine days before a potential state government shutdown, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders did not meet today to try to reach a budget deal.
Instead, some lawmakers were making additional legal preparations for a shutdown lawsuit, and there was at least one back-channel discussion underway to try to break the impasse.
The Republican-controlled Minnesota House is now ready to join the lawsuit filed last week by Attorney General Lori Swanson to keep essential services running during a government shutdown.
The shutdown will begin July 1 if there's still no budget agreement. Members of the House Rules Committee approved participation in the case, as well as the hiring of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson to represent the House in court.
House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said the authorization is a necessary precaution.
"The resolution is just allowing us to get Mr. Magnuson to work on this on our behalf. So that if we do go to this next step that we can have our staff functioning and be able to produce the work that we need to do to get out of a shutdown," Dean said. "Hopefully we never get there. We would still like to resolve this to avoid a shutdown."
The Minnesota Senate took similar action last week. An initial hearing in the shutdown case is scheduled for Thursday in Ramsey County District Court.
Still, some Democrats on the House panel questioned the timing of the resolution. Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, said she thinks the authorization of legal action sends the wrong message.
"It's premature," Norton said. "You have a couple of weeks to get work done. My anticipation is you will do that, and I'm disappointed that we're doing this as early we have. To me, it shows a sign that you've given up."
Republicans want Magnuson to argue in court for continued funding for the Minnesota House. They also want him to argue against Gov. Dayton's proposal for court-ordered mediation to resolve the budget impasse. Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said the public expects state lawmakers to resolve the budget, not a mediator.
"I think that it would be a huge disservice to the citizens of this state, who elected this body, elected the Senate and elected the governor, to hand over that responsibility to an non-elected official," Anderson said.
In the court petition filed last week, Dayton only requested the appointment of a mediator to "oversee and facilitate negotiations." Rep. Deb Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, pointed out that mediators don't make decisions.
"Mediators get people in the room and re-phrase questions and ask questions and people come to decisions. Arbitrators make decisions, Mediators don't," Hilstron said. "So, I think it's really important that we talk about at least things legally accurately."
With the potential shutdown approaching quickly and no budget deal in sight, a first-term Republican senator has been working behind the scenes to forge a compromise. Senator John Howe of Red Wing said he spoke with Gov. Dayton twice in the past week about expanding the state sales tax to more goods and services, while lowering the rate.
Howe said he thinks the proposal — which is similar to a plan proposed during last year's campaign by Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner — could be the key to a budget agreement.
"We're at an impasse here, and you've got two sides that are, you know, it's a win-lose proposition," Howe said. "And I think there's a third way out. I think if we passed a continuing resolution to keep the lights on, and we formed a tax commission, we could reform and provide a much more stable funding environment going forward."
Dayton did not talk to reporters, but the governor's spokeswoman, Katharine Tinucci, confirmed the conversations with Howe. She said the governor made no commitment to the proposal, but he remains willing to listen to anyone with a good idea.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch said she doesn't support the proposal as part of a budget solution.
The governor's office also said Dayton and GOP leaders are scheduled to meet again Wednesday afternoon. It will be their first face-to-face discussion since last Thursday.