Dayton stands firm on budget

The governor said he would call a special session rather than agree to Republican budget plans.

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Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton answered questions about the state budget and end-of-session issues.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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Gov. Mark Dayton made it plain Wednesday that he'll take lawmakers to a special session before he agrees to an all-cuts budget.

GOP legislative leaders -- the Senate in particular -- has insisted that the budget must not go beyond $34 billion.

On Wednesday, less than 20 days from adjournment, Dayton said that won't happen.

"We won't leave the session with a budget that's $34 billion," he said. "We'll leave the session with it unresolved."

Dayton has said the Republican budget is not balanced -- an assertion they dispute -- and that it cuts too deeply into core services. He wants to raise income taxes, although he has said he is open to other types of revenue.

But, he said, "I'm not going to go all the way over to their 20-yard line."

Time is running out. The DFL governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature appear no closer to a budget deal for the next two years than they did in January. The Legislature must adjourn its regular session on May 23.

If no budget agreement is reached by July 1, parts of state government will start to shut down.

Although Dayton said he is losing his optimism for a timely session end, Republican Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch said she and the governor are slowly ironing out their differences, although she gave no indication of where they had compromised.

"We're working things out," she said.

"I think that 'living within our means' is good rhetoric, and people want the government to do that," Dayton said of the GOP's budget message. But he said they have not followed up their rhetoric with action.

Dayton was less than sanguine about the situation that leaves. The former U.S. senator, who left the Senate with harsh words for the nation's most deliberative body, compared the Minnesota Legislature unfavorably with the gang of 100.

"I think the Senate's more responsible than the way they're behaving right now. In the Senate, people take real stands. People go on the floor and they say what they mean and they're held accountable for it," he said.

There are some state lawmakers, he said, "who don't have any clue of what's really going on in government. They have their rhetoric. ... They don't care about the agencies, they don't care about the functions of state government."

Republican lawmakers have countered that they understand government. They simply want it to change in ways Dayton doesn't like.

Dayton said their actions leave him mystified.

"I'm fully surprised by the charade about the numbers," he said.

The governor and lawmakers have been in a weekslong stare down over budget estimates, known as fiscal notes. In short, lawmakers balanced their budget using estimates that the Minnesota Management and Budget agency hasn't approved.

Dayton said he was particularly astonished that Republicans refuse to accept that department's estimates, given its commissioner. Dayton picked Jim Schowalter, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget director, to lead the department and left many of the Pawlenty finance staffers in place.

"If anyone should have been a little suspect about it, it should have been me ... but I was very impressed," Dayton said.

He said to "impugn" the hard-working staffers' integrity is "out of bounds" and unwarranted.

Republicans have said they are doing no such things.

"There are times when fiscal notes do not accurately reflect the underlying legislation," Zellers told Dayton in a letter.

Despite Dayton's requests, lawmakers have not bent to his will on accounting. Lawmakers have also all but ignored a Friday deadline he set down for them to pass compromise House-Senate budget bills.

Dayton admitted he has little power to compel their action.

"They can chose to go their way. There is nothing I can do about it," he said. "I can't do anything except challenge them publicly."

Special session?

Despite the gloom, the governor said neither he nor his agencies are planning for a July government shutdown.

He said he is thinking about a possible special session.

If it comes to that, he said, he is more likely to call lawmakers back to work only after their leaders agree on a budget deal.

"I think if you call them back right away, it costs the taxpayer money for all the per diems and everything else and their opportunity to get things done terminates on May 23," Dayton said.

After reaching a budget impasse in 2005, Pawlenty called lawmakers back immediately. That special session lasted until a the government was several days into a partial shutdown.

Despite potentially dark times ahead, Dayton said he has no plans to weaken.

"I've had to stand firm all the way through this," he said. "And I will continue to do so."

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb McKenzie Martin, a University of Minnesota student working with the Star Tribune, contributed to this report.

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