With three days remaining to avert a potential state government shutdown, budget negotiations have still not produced an agreement.
DFL Governor Mark Dayton and Republican legislative met again Monday afternoon, marking four consecutive days of closed-door discussions. They ended the meeting after about an hour with no breakthrough and a pledge to meet again Tuesday.
After long meetings Friday and Saturday, and a short one Sunday, lawmakers and the governor met behind closed doors for about an hour.
Dayton remained optimistic when he arrived for the latest round of budget discussions, but he also stuck to his agreement with GOP leaders to not talk about negotiation specifics.
"You know we've agreed to a "cone of silence" because it's conducive to us working things out," Dayton said. "I remain committed to finding a fair and balanced budget that will benefit the state of Minnesota and avoid a shutdown. We'll see if that's possible."
Earlier in the day Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Amy Koch at least nudged the silence when they went to Stillwater, about a 20-mile drive from the Capitol, to highlight one potential consequence of a government shutdown. During a news conference, they urged Dayton to keep the Stillwater lift bridge operating. Minutes before the event, the Department of Transportation issued a news release saying the bridge could remain open. House Majority Leader Matt Dean said the bridge was just one example of the kind of uncertainty that would grip Minnesota in event of a shutdown.
"This is really a symbol of what's going on all across the state. People are saying 'What's going to happen?' " Dean said. "And I think we have an opportunity to get our work done. We're very, very close in many, many areas. And the governor needs to sign a transportation bill so that this bridge is operational and Minnesota stays working."
Republicans are pushing for a special session to wrap up some budget bills, while the broader negotiations continue. Gov. Dayton insists that an overall agreement comes first. However, Koch believes that agreements are close on bills to fund education, public safety and transportation.
"The message remains the same: Governor, call us back," Koch said. "Let's work on the bills where we have very near to agreement. Get those settled, continue to work on the others. A shutdown is unnecessary and it's not acceptable."
Republican leaders also sent an email to state employees arguing their side of the budget debate. But the root of the budget impasse remains the same: The governor wants to increase income taxes on top earners, and Republicans oppose any tax increases. Republicans also refuse to spend more than $34 billion over the next two years. Speaker Zellers said he sees a simple path to a budget deal.
"A couple of weeks ago we gave up all of our tax cuts. We just ask him to give up all of his tax increases and we can get this done," Zellers said. DFL leaders in the House and Senate remained silent on negotiation specifics. But Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said that Zellers' Stillwater comment indicates that Republicans aren't willing to compromise.
"You know the governor has made a couple of moves here, one in March, another one in May. He showed some additional cuts over the weekend," Bakk said. "And (Republicans) still are hung up on a $34 billion budget. If that's the comment, they haven't moved one inch toward the governor."
Both Bakk and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said they still believe a budget agreement can be reached by Friday to avoid a shutdown. Thissen said he's ready to work.
"I don't think it's particularly helpful for the leaders who should be here negotiating to be out holding press conferences. Our job is to actually get the job done," Thissen said. "The Democrats are committed to making sure that's done, and done in a way that protects Minnesotans."
The scope of a shutdown could soon become clearer when Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin issues an anticipated court order. Gearin is expected to rule at any time which state government services are essential and should continue to be funded and operated during a shutdown.