Dayton renews call for GOP to finish its budget bills

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders said Tuesday that they're looking for ways to start negotiations on an end-of-session budget agreement that would erase the state's projected $5 billion deficit.

Dayton said that he's ready to compromise, but he repeated that he won't come to the table until Republicans in the House and Senate resolve their spending bills.

With just 13 days left in the legislative session, Dayton and the GOP leaders met for 70 minutes to discuss budget matters. Dayton said despite all of the recent attention on a proposed Vikings stadium, his meetings with legislators are almost exclusively about the budget. The governor described the latest meeting as constructive, but he also said he repeated a familiar message about what it will take to get him to the bargaining table.

"One budget, Republican budget, that's balanced and based on verifiable reliable assumption is what I've said until I'm blue in the face, six weeks now, is what I require to commence negotiations," the governor said.

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Dayton wants House and Senate negotiators to resolve the difference between the two sets of spending bills passed last month. He said he doesn't want to have to choose between two proposals that he doesn't agree with. Dayton argues that those proposals cut state spending too deeply, but Republicans firmly oppose the governor's plan to raise income taxes on top earners.

Still, Dayton made it clear that he's willing to be flexible to find some middle ground, and he expects Republicans to do the same.

"But if they say their number, $34 billion, and I'm at approximately $37 billion, and they won't negotiate one dollar of increase, then they're basically saying I have to go all the way over to their position. I have to give up everything that I believe in and agree to their budget number $34 billion. Well, that's not negotiation."

Dayton said he talked with GOP leaders about "possibilities for how to proceed," and he asked for a day to think about their suggestions. Dayton declined to elaborate, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch of Buffalo said they essentially asked the governor to start considering individual budget bills as soon as they're ready.

"Let's start working on these bills," Koch said. "Let's move forward. As we've been saying, they're in conference committee. Let's bring the governor in, bring his commissioners in, and let's wrap these up as we go."

Koch said she expects that some conference committees could close up bills soon, but she didn't offer a timetable. Koch also insisted that Republicans are not willing to negotiate on everything.

"I think the key there though is that the governor needs to come to the understanding that there are not 34 votes in the Minnesota Senate and there's not the required votes in the Minnesota House for a tax increase. So knowing that and settling on that, then we can move forward and we can get this budget wrapped up."

Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove agreed. Zellers said a tax increase, like the one Dayton is proposing, would kill jobs in Minnesota.

"That's where a vast majority of Minnesotans are, and a vast majority of states," Zellers said. "I think there are 44 or 45 other states that aren't raising taxes that have budget deficits. We need to be with the majority to keep Minnesota competitive."

Zellers and Koch remain optimistic about reaching a final budget agreement by the constitutional adjournment date of May 23. But DFL leaders are sounding pessimistic. DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen of Minneapolis said he's concerned by the hard line Republicans have taken even before negotiations begin.

"Gov. Dayton has expressed an incredible willingness to compromise with the Republicans," Thissen said. "But the Republicans, in order to protect special interests, which they've voted to do over and over again and in order protect the richest Minnesotans, have refused to compromise and have their feet stuck in cement. And it's very clear that that's the position we're in with less than two weeks to go."

Thissen said he will propose that conference committees be disbanded and reorganized if they don't complete their work by Monday.