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Rhetoric gets more heated between Dayton, GOP lawmakers

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Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton speaks in the Capitol rotunda on final day of Minnesota's 2011 legislative session. Dayton said he's "extremely pessimistic" a budget deal coudl be reached by Monday's midnight deadline.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton ratcheted up the rhetoric in his budget battle with the Republican majority in the Legislature, saying if a government shutdown does happen, it will the fault of first-term GOP lawmakers.

Dayton met privately on Wednesday with his commissioners to start planning for a possible government shutdown. That shutdown would come in 36 days if the two sides can't reach an agreement.

Meanwhile, a war of words is being waged over which side is out of touch with Minnesotans. Dayton is characterizing his budget plan as reasonable because it cuts spending and raises income taxes on Minnesota's top earners. Republicans say their plan is better because it doesn't raise taxes.

Throughout the five months of the legislative session, Dayton aimed most of his criticism at GOP legislative leaders. But in recent days, he's been critical of the roughly 50 new members of the Legislature.

He blamed what he called "an extremist right-wing group" of Republican legislators for refusing to move off their position that the state should spend $34 billion over the next two years and not a penny more.

"First it's $34 billion, then they prefer $32 billion, and then $31 billion," Dayton said. "They don't even know what those numbers mean. They never developed a budget for 32 or 31. All they know is the number 31 is less than 32. And that makes it a good idea because they're just anti-government."

Dayton vetoed the Republican budget plan on Tuesday, suggesting the cuts to health care, higher education and state government were too extreme.

On Wednesday, he symbolically vetoed a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. Dayton called the amendment mean-spirited, divisive, un-Minnesotan and un-American, but he admitted his veto will do nothing to prevent it from going on the 2012 ballot. He said the amendment may be the only accomplishment that GOP lawmakers have to show for the 2011 session.

Several Republican senators, includuing Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes, took issue with Dayton's comments.

"I'm a father and a husband," Chamberlain said. "I till my own garden. I pull my own weeds. My truck is 10 years old, and it needs new tires. I volunteer at the church. That is not extreme."

Chamberlain and seven other first-term Republican senators held a news conference to react to Dayton's comments. They talked about their lives outside of the Capitol, why they ran for office and their key priorities. Their top issue is erasing the state's $5 billion projected budget deficit by holding the line on government spending.

Sen. Ben Kruse of Brooklyn Park said the Republican budget plan actually increases state spending over the current two-year budget.

"We have put together a full and balanced budget. We have helped Minnesota keep its government within its means," said Kruse. "We will not spend more than the revenue that we bring in, just like Minnesota families can't spend more than what they bring in. That's why we're here, and that's anything but unreasonable."

This year's crop of Republican newcomers has considerable influence in both the House and Senate. They make up more than half of the Republican majority in the Senate and nearly half in the House. That means freshman lawmakers will have a big say about whether GOP legislative leaders can cut a budget deal with Dayton in time to avoid a government shutdown on July 1.

The governor held a private meeting with his cabinet Wednesday to plan for such a shutdown. Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter says attorneys for the state will go to a judge next month to determine which state services are essential. He said state agencies will also try to identify which services have to continue if a shutdown occurs.

"It's an extraordinarily quick way to make people very somber, confused and frustrated," Schowalter said. "It takes us away from what we want to be doing, which is thinking about how to get us a budget that works."

The governor said he hopes to meet with GOP legislative leaders later this week or early next week to resume budget talks.