Budget negotiators get down to the details

State shutdown
Negotiators for the Legislature and Gov. Dayton are meeting in the Capitol to hammer out details of a new two-year budget agreement. The building remains closed to the public, as it has been since the shutdown began on July 1.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

With a budget framework now in hand, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders went to work Friday, trying to fill in the details of a two-year spending plan that will end the state government shutdown.

But most of that work was going on behind closed doors in a closed State Capitol, any many big questions remain about what will end up in the final budget.

The agreement Dayton and GOP leaders announced Thursday provided only a glimpse of the the budget bills that will come up for a vote in a yet-to-be called special session.

They agreed to spend $35.4 billion over the next two years, with $1.4 billion coming from a combination of tobacco bond borrowing and an expanded K-12 education payment shift. It's not entirely clear where that additional $1.4 billion in revenue will be spent.

Dayton said it will help fund essential services.

"That means funding for the University of Minnesota, MnSCU, for protecting special education and actually increasing the per-pupil aid formula for schools for the first time in years."

Dayton said there will be some cuts in the state workforce, but didn't give a percentage. Republicans dropped their proposal for a 15 percent reduction, but Dayton's initial budget plan had a 6 percent cut. The governor added that no one will lose health insurance, and transit reductions will be minimized.

GOP leaders
Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, speaks about the state budget stalemate at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., on Monday, July 11, 2011. At right is House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"Clearly, my top priority was preventing any more drastic cuts in funding and services that people in Minnesota depend upon," said the governor.

Dayton said he expects the work on spending bills to be completed Friday night, with a special session tentatively set for Monday.

But at least one of the meetings ran into early problems. Talks on a state government operation bills ended abruptly over a disagreement about which policy provisions would be eliminated.

Senate GOP Majority Leader Amy Koch said she wants to give the discussions as much time as necessary. Koch said she's asked committee chairs in each budget area to push hard for cost savings and reforms.

"If we can get some reforms in place, where we can feel that there are some changes being made in the upcoming budget cycle, so that we're not just continuing down this road of spending as usual and spending too much, then we're on board for this budget deal. But we have to see real movement," said Koch.

Spending on health care and human services programs is the fastest growing piece of the state budget, and the biggest target for savings. Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chair of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, offered few details about the bill. But he said it will get a big share of the $1.4 billion in new revenue.

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton addresses reporters in the lobby of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Minn., on July 15, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"I'm not sure what I'm allowed to say, but a considerable amount," said Abeler. "Not half, but a number that will make people feel more comfortable."

Talks are also underway on a $500 million bonding bill, which Dayton included among his conditions for the final deal. Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, said he thinks the bill will largely mirror the governor's bonding proposal from January. That plan listed 203 projects.

"I don't know that we've gotten far enough in it to know that we're going to disagree a lot," said Senjem. "We may on specific projects, but I suspect the governor is going to get a good share of what he wanted."

All of the budget and bonding work is taking place in private meetings, with only Dayton administration commissioners and the chairs of House and Senate committees participating.

In addition, the State Capitol remains closed to the public due to the shutdown, and government watchdogs are wondering why. Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, said he's gravely concerned about the lack of access.

"The Capitol is really the people's building, and right now the public is being shut out of the process," said Dean. "Our preference would be that all those meetings be publicly available or be open to the public as those negotiations happen, so we can make sure the public interest is really represented and special interests aren't dominating those conversations."

Dean sent a letter to GOP leaders requesting they open the Capitol. He also requested that the final budget bills be made public at least 72 hours before lawmakers vote.

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