With less than a week until the deadline, state leaders ended discussions and gave no clue why.
With a state government shutdown four days away, Capitol leaders abruptly concluded their weekend budget talks Sunday afternoon after meeting for just over an hour.
Neither the governor nor legislative leaders explained the sudden end in discussions, one day after they had reported progress. On Sunday afternoon, House Speaker Kurt Zellers said talks were simply "done for a little while" before he headed home with his family.
Since DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders began an intense stretch of talks to resolve a $5 billion budget shortfall, they have adopted what Zellers called a "cone of silence" and Dayton referred to as a "vow of silence," sharing little of the nature of their discussions.
Even as Minnesotans waited anxiously to find out whether there would be a budget deal to avert a government shutdown on July 1 -- this Friday -- leaders refused to say why their marathon session quickly ended or whether it signals a breakdown in communications.
"We continue to talk. We continue to work," Zellers said.
The abrupt termination stopped a span of talks during which Zellers, Dayton, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and their top deputies met behind closed doors in a state office building, trying to hash out an agreement. They always appeared jointly after previous sessions to make a few comments, but on Sunday, as the sun shone through the windows and legislative staffers -- and Zellers' two young children -- wandered the airy offices, the negotiators simply left via hidden elevators and alternative doors.
DFL lawmakers and commissioners continued to meet separately and some Republican committee chairs planned to continue their work. Legislative human services specialists plan to meet Monday but there was no word on whether leaders would continue their focus on the budget.
The stakes for their negotiations could not be higher. Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin is expected to rule soon on what services - if any - the court can order to continue after July 1 if there isn't a legal two-year budget. Even if some spending is permissible, a shutdown would be painful, Gearin said last week. She told an attorney for child care organizations and addiction treatment programs that no matter how worthwhile their services, they may not see state funding in a shutdown. Most expect all state parks and rest stops to close on July 1.
Yet by Saturday, leaders said they were doing everything possible to avoid that and said talks had gone well.
"Very respectful, cordial," Dayton said. The bitter exchange of words that had marked the last few weeks had turned into what Dayton characterized as "respectful disagreement."
Time out for Pride parade
Dayton began the day with a more upbeat reception.
The governor has pledged to oppose the anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot with "every fiber" of his being. On Sunday he took his fibers to the Twin Cities Pride parade to join a group from "Leather Pride," representatives of Minnesota's biggest businesses, families and herds of rainbow-colored dogs in advocating for gay rights.
The buttoned-down, 64-year-old DFLer's appearance in the parade was a first for the state's chief executive. The cheering crowd thanked him repeatedly for coming and begged to shake his hand or give him a hug.
But they, like Dayton, kept the budget mess at the fore.
"Go get 'em," a man shouted at the governor.
"Don't cave," others instructed.
"Hold your ground," one woman told him.
"Don't back down! Don't back down," a contingent chanted.
"I'll be out of work for a week or two," state worker Nonie Wirth, clad in leather for Pride, told Dayton. But she said, she could deal with a brief shutdown. "I know it's for the good of everybody."
Dayton said the morning trip away from the bargaining table "definitely energized" him. "I think that was a random sample of Minnesotans," he joked.
He took a moment to chat with a staffer, climbed into a big black Suburban and headed to the Capitol.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb