Progress toward a budget resolution is unclear as details of the closed-door discussions remain undisclosed, but Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP legislative leaders are scheduled to again hold private talks this morning with the hopes of averting a government shutdown.
The two sides have been in daily negotiating sessions since Friday.
To an observer, the daily budget talks have fallen into a pattern.
Participants on both sides maintain a "cone of silence" and decline to discuss the details of the negotiations. The players speak broadly and mention little of consequence as they head into negotiations or when the meetings are over. They used generic terms like "progress" and "optimism" to characterize the tone of the talks.
"We've agreed to a "cone of silence" because it's conducive to our working things out because I remain committed to finding a fair and balanced budget that will benefit the state of Minnesota and avoid a shutdown and we'll see if that's possible," Dayton said, responding to a question about specifics.
For months, the two sides publicly traded barbs over taxes and spending. With the state days away from a government shutdown, they're not saying much of anything publicly. Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers says keeping things secret helps the negotiations.
"In order to make sure that we can have frank and honest conversations in the room, we've agreed to the cone of silence in there that we not only feel comfortable that things won't be leaked out or be misinterpreted," Zellers said. "We're not going to say beyond what we've talked about before."
The stakes for an agreement are huge. Many government services will end if Dayton and the Legislature fail to reach a budget deal. On top of that, politicians will have to face an angry public, frustrated that the governor and the Legislature can't finish their constitutional task of enacting a balanced budget.
"The most stressful period of time that I dealt with was when I was in the governor's office and I was deputy chief of staff and it was during the shutdown time period," said Tom Hanson. Hanson served in many roles, including top finance official, during Gov. Tim Pawlenty's eight years in office.
He was involved in many private budget meetings, including in 2005 — the last time state government shut down. He said it's helpful that Dayton and lawmakers stay mum about budget talks because it encourages trust among parties in an environment where it would otherwise be hard to find. Hanson said the root of the stalemate is that the Republicans negotiators can't agree to any deal that won't meet acceptance from their Legislature members.
"It is more than just putting numbers on a spreadsheet. If that were the case, it would have (been) done months ago," Hanson said. "It is putting the numbers on the sheet and getting it passed and I think there's a delicate balance that each side works with."
Hanson believes Republicans will have to agree to a larger budget in order to meet the governor's approval, a task that could be accomplished without Dayton's proposed income tax increase, possibly by using fees, one-time money and surcharges on hospitals, HMOs and nursing homes.
A shutdown would damage the reputations of both sides, Hanson said, but he believes Republicans won't be hurt as badly as Dayton because the public is perceived to want less spending in state and federal government.
Former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe disagrees. He says a shutdown will put more political pressure on legislative Republicans than on Democrat Dayton.
"The governor is in the first six months of a four-year term. They're up for re-election next year," Moe said. "They are representatives of the people, so they're more accessible to the general population of the state so they're going to hear those messages loud and clear.
Moe predicts the governor will have to drop his plans for an income tax increase on top earners. He said Dayton must weigh whether a long budget battle is a better outcome than giving up his signature issue. Up for question is what Dayton will get in return from the GOP.