Talks over state budget stretch on as adjournment approaches

A man looks out from the Capitol loggia as talks over the state budget drag on at the Capitol. Brian Bakst | MPR News.

Minnesota lawmakers slid past a self-set deadline for striking a budget agreement in a day of fits-and-starts negotiations, although the unwillingness of top leaders to say much about their talks suggested real deal-making was in full swing.

The closed-door discussions -- a ritual that the new crop of leaders had hoped to keep to a minimum this year -- left little public indication of what obstacles had been dispensed with and what pressure points remained.

Key questions include:

--Is a gas tax increase sought by DFL Gov. Tim Walz and House Democrats for transportation and other initiatives gone?

--Will a tax on medical procedures remain in place to feed a health care fund used for a variety of programs?

--Will schools get a big enough aid boost that would head off down-the-line budget cuts?

Walz, the first-term DFL governor, was the only one in the high-level discussions to say much of substance on Wednesday. And even those comments weren’t specific to the talks.

He stepped away from negotiations in the evening to attend a memorial service to fallen law enforcement officers, held annually on the lower mall of the Capitol. There, he referred to the “chaos” of politics and the need to rise above it.

“Shame on us if we can’t figure out a way to work with one another,” Walz told the audience. “Shame on us if we can’t figure out a way to work together to better the lives of Minnesota.”

Walz spent most of the day holed up with agency commissioners, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and their top aides.

Neither Hortman nor Gazelka had much to say to reporters.

"We're working hard, that's for sure," Gazelka said as he arrived for one late-night bargaining session.

On the Twin Cities public television “Almanac at the Capitol” program, broadcast live from the Capitol, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler defended the process of having intense discussions in private without disclosing much.

“We started with a more-open process exchanging public offers and it wasn’t getting us anywhere,” said Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, adding that the intensive discussions are going into great depth.

“In the end, all bills will be public. They’ll be posted. They’ll go through a conference committee process. There will be plenty of opportunity to weigh in. At this stage, it feels like this is the most productive way to negotiate.”

Once the leaders strike a deal, there are several conference committees that will have to fill in the details before any of the budget proposals are ready for floor votes.

On the TPT program, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, predicted the gas tax hike would be out of the final mix and schools would get 2 percent annual boosts to their general per-student allowances. Daudt has not been at the negotiating table to date, but remains in conversations with Senate Republican leaders.

“The reality is a deal can be had without raising new revenues that can fund schools at that level,” Daudt said. “We just have to roll up our sleeves.”

Winkler warned that a no-new-tax budget would lead to future deficits.

“Minnesotans know there is no free lunch,” Winkler said. “You can sell a free lunch but what you are really selling is deficit spending and irresponsible spending for years to come.”

The Legislature has until midnight on Monday to complete a new two-year budget if they want to avoid a special session and potential government shutdown.

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