In a dark union office in South St. Paul last week, Vicki Moore was on the hunt for residents willing to crank up the heat on vulnerable Republicans who could become crucial to a budget deal.
Call after call, she made her polished plea: "You've got to call your legislator and tell them how disappointed you are that they refuse to compromise with Governor Dayton."
With their permission, Moore patched the callers through to their legislator's home phone in hopes the caller would chip away at the lawmaker's resolve.
With the state edging toward a historic and wide-reaching government shutdown, the road to resolution could lead straight to a handful of GOP freshmen who barely won election and veteran legislators intent on preserving a Republican majority.
Supporters of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's proposal have identified more than two dozen lawmakers who they think could be persuaded to cross over to resolve the state's budget deficit, raise some revenue and avert -- or at least shorten -- a bruising government closure.
Dayton supporters have been making lists of Republicans they consider least ideologically driven, or the most electorally vulnerable, and picking away at them one by one with a barrage of phone calls and local television advertisements.
"I've gone back to work; now is supposed to be down time," said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, a target of many of the calls. "Now it's like campaign-level activity."
For Democrats, the math is pretty simple. If DFLers stick together, they need just five of 37 Republican senators and six of 72 GOP House members to pass a budget compromise.
The standoff gripping the Capitol has been nearly frozen in time since January. Dayton wants to raise income taxes on the top 2 percent of Minnesota earners to help beat down the state's $5 billion projected deficit. Republicans unanimously oppose his tax plans but have put forth cuts far deeper than he will accept.
The big unknown is whether enough Republicans would sign on to some form of taxes or other revenue source that Dayton could live with.
Facing a dilemma
Rookie GOP legislators and those in hotly contested districts face an excruciating dilemma.
If they join Democrats in passing a budget deal, they could be ostracized by their colleagues, lose powerful committee assignments and face a painful reckoning from party faithful back home. But if they express lockstep solidarity with leaders' insistence on not caving to Dayton, they risk being wiped out by Democrats in the next election should voters place the blame on them.
"I want to see a deal get done," said freshman Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, who has been getting peppered with calls from constituents. "The last thing I want to see is a government shutdown."
As the July 1 shutdown date draws closer, some of these Republican legislators are quietly floating ideas to broker a deal, everything from raising taxes on alcohol to expanding gambling to broadening the state sales tax.
Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, said he can't live with Dayton's tax plan. But he would consider an expansion of gambling and an alcohol tax hike, an idea that has been taboo for legislative Republicans for months.
"If it's a penny per beer, I could live with that," he said, noting that alcohol taxes are often least objectionable to voters and haven't been raised in years. "If it avoids a shutdown, I could stomach it."
If it came down to it, Kriesel said he'd be willing to cross party lines.
"There are people in my party totally closed to new revenue," he said. "I don't like that. People need to open up their minds and look at other solutions."
State Rep. King Banaian, R-St. Cloud, is facing intense pressure from all sides. He's an economist with St. Cloud State University, a state-funded campus inching closer toward the uncertainty of shutdown. At the same time, Banaian has to be mindful that he beat his DFL rival by only 10 votes last fall. A painful shutdown could be a wicked detour to any re-election plans.
Banaian has opposed Dayton's tax plan but didn't slam the door on other forms of new money, like fees and surcharges.
First, the governor must make his case for why more revenue is necessary, Banaian said. If Dayton told him it would go for more K-12 funding, "that's a much different conversation."
Earlier this session, Banaian's party didn't embrace his proposal to build a science building at St. Cloud State. DFLers could slide that money into a new budget deal to appease Banaian's constituents and perhaps soften the blow if he must defy his party leaders.
Banaian said he waits "with open ears" to future discussions.
Dayton has met privately with at least a couple of Republican legislators outside the formal budget negotiations.
Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, had a recent meeting with Dayton that he called, "private, personal and productive."
Howe stressed that he didn't think Dayton's income tax proposal would ever be acceptable, but suggested lowering and broadening the sales tax, which could go a long way to bridge the divide. He also talked about eliminating some tax loopholes, which could appease Dayton's insistence on a fairer tax system.
"I was just there to share a possibility," Howe said. "I am just offering some ideas that I think could move forward."
These days, Dayton and GOP leaders are locked in what so far has proven to be an intractable ground war over their two plans.
Eventually, a deal is likely to emerge and these Republicans could become crucial to brokering an accord.
Said Miller: "I am open to sitting down with the governor and working toward a compromise solution."
Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288
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Here's what the DFL needs to pass a budget bill:
5 of 37
6 of 72
Republican House members