Hints of budget accord scarce amid tough talk

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON and RACHEL E. STASSEN - BERGER , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: May 19, 2011 - 11:49 PM

The squabble over specific budget cuts is a sideshow compared to the far larger ideological rift over raising state taxes.

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Governor Mark Dayton and GOP leadership spoke to the press after emerging from the GOP caucus. L to R majority leader Amy Koch, deputy majority leader Geoff Michel, house majority leader Matt Dean , house speaker Kurt Zellers, Governor Dayton.

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DFL Gov. Mark Dayton held a rare private meeting with rank-and-file Republican legislators on Thursday to deliver a blunt message. The impasse that threatens a special session and a government shutdown is no longer a matter of policy, ideology or even budget, Dayton said: "It is your unwillingness to assume the responsibilities of leadership."

The responsible way to resolve differences in a divided government is compromise, Dayton said. "Your 'my way or no way' is not," the governor said.

Asked later if Dayton's opening remarks were conciliatory, House Majority Leader Matt Dean answered in one word: "No."

The tough talk came on a day when legislators had slogged through a second consecutive overnight floor session and passed a package of budget bills that the majority Republicans said were balanced, raised no new taxes and stayed within their self-imposed limit of $34 billion.

That amount is less than the state needs to maintain current services but is the amount it is projected to collect over the next two years.

Before the meeting, Dayton set an ominous tone when he vetoed the Republican redistricting proposals and said he stood ready to reject their budget bills as well in the absence of any overall agreement.

The lack of any hint of a deal so late in the session snuffed most hope for an accord by Monday's deadline. Even if Dayton and Republicans break their months-long deadlock, there is now little time to negotiate through all of the concerns and sign a deal in time.

Their squabble over specific budgets is a relatively minor sideshow compared to a far larger ideological rift that has gripped the Capitol for five months -- the profound and paralyzing ideological split over taxes.

Voters sent Dayton to the state's highest office largely on his promise to end the state's persistent deficits by raising taxes on high earners. Republican legislative candidates, on the strength of their anti-tax message, thumped DFLers in the same election and took over the Legislature for the first time in decades.

Dayton and Republicans have shown few signs of urgency or any willingness to cave in order to avoid a special session or the national black eye that could come from a government shutdown.

GOP leaders have not raced to get their budget bills to the governor's desk, nor have the two sides engaged in the kind of frenzied, back-door negotiations that typically grip the Capitol in the closing days of session.

"It is different," said Republican Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "Generally the two sides have had negotiations by this point in time, so it's a little disappointing."

Some give, some take

Despite Dayton's stern tone, the two sides took baby steps toward a thaw during the closed-door meeting.

"I couldn't have been treated more respectfully and courteously," Dayton said afterward. "There was good listening going on."

Said Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo: "It was very constructive. There was some give and some take."

It was a remarkable and rare meeting between the freshman governor and rookie Republican leaders. The last state leader to meet with rank-and-file legislators from other parties was Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura.

After the meeting, Dayton addressed a chief Republican concern: That he had been unwilling to meaningfully negotiate. He gave those present his private cell number and agreed to personally meet with the legislators who crafted the GOP education budget and the state government plan -- two components crucial to any budget deal.

But the toxicity had not dissipated entirely by meeting's end. Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, took his displeasure to the Internet, tweeting: "Dayton personally wants to meet with State Gov committees?????? He met with Rep Lanning and I a week ago to lecture us. What will change?"

The exchange highlights the lingering divide. Republicans want to negotiate their budgets, which Dayton said imposed, in some cases, a "barbaric" level of cuts. The governor wants to negotiate a tax increase, which Republicans consistently characterize as "job-killing."

The meeting came days after Dayton offered to cut his tax increase proposal in half, so that it would affect only the top 2 percent of wage-earners, leaving 98 percent of Minnesotans unscathed and raising $1.8 billion. But Republicans dug in, saying that everything was negotiable -- except taxes or spending.

One Republican veteran, Rep. Steve Smith of Mound, said he saw a need for not just Dayton but also members of his own party to show more flexibility. "Maybe it's time for Republican leadership to understand they've got to get their feet out of the cement, and the governor has to get his out of the cement, and they need to start moving toward each other," Smith said. "My advice is both sides ought to get their feet out of concrete."

Even knowing that the bills they were debating faced a near-certain veto, legislators returned on Thursday afternoon to the grind of passing their final budget bills.

The House had passed most of its budget bills in a marathon session that started Wednesday afternoon and lasted until dawn on Thursday. The Senate jostled its way through bills on environment, transportation and higher education.

Environment

The Senate passed the environmental bill 35-28. Republicans said the cuts to state agencies would be manageable, but DFLers said it would result in closed parks and reduced hours. Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, said the state's parks and trails budget would be cut by $7.3 million. "A lot of Minnesotans will be very unhappy that their vacation is going to be hindered in this way," she said.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee chair, said DFLers were inflating the legislation's negative impact. "The parks will remain open," said Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria. "They'll be there on the Fourth of July."

Transportation

The Senate also passed a $4.5 billion transportation bill that includes Republican cuts to Twin Cities transit that DFLers say will force fare hikes and service reductions.

The Senate passed the transportation bill 36-26, hours after the House passed the same measure.

The bill cuts $109 million from transit, eliminating most state general funds over the next two years for metro bus and rail operations. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said the cuts would force a 50-cent fare hike. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said it would provide money for road maintenance and job creation.

Staff writers Mike Kaszuba and Pat Doyle contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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