Shutdown won't close down courts

As budget talks continued, judge ruled public's rights need protecting.

The state's judicial system would continue to operate even if the state's coffers slam shut during a government closure, under a ruling issued Tuesday.

"If the courts are not funded, the basic, essential constitutional rights of the public would be unprotected and fail," retired Ramsey County District Judge Bruce Christopherson wrote on Tuesday. "The consequences would be irreparable and inestimable."

Even as state leaders huddled in a remote Capitol office working toward a deal, some details began to emerge of how millions of Minnesotans could see their lives change if state government shuts down at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

Carpool lanes soon would be off-limits to solo drivers during rush hour, Hennepin County service centers would not open after the July 4th holiday weekend on Tuesday, the state medical board would stop issuing licenses and even the state's racetracks would be shuttered.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republicans who control the Legislature have been scrambling behind closed doors to patch together final details on a budget that has bedeviled them since January.

Both sides have put a chokehold on release of details for days, unwilling to hint at the slightest change in momentum.

"It comes down to a willingness to reach an agreement," Dayton said of the afternoon meeting. "That's all I can say."

Legislators have been instructed to stick close to the Capitol the rest of the week in case of a last-minute deal. Depending on how close the leaders cut it, rank-and-file lawmakers might have to appear at the Capitol within hours to pass an emergency bill to keep government running until they can return for a special session to pass a complete budget.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said leaders have been "gearing up the legislative branch" all week on the assumption lawmakers may be needed to vote quickly.

"They're prepared. They're ready," said House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

Dayton said he would sign the emergency measure only if there is a global budget deal. The two sides will be back bargaining at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Dayton and Republican legislators have been locked in a bitter showdown over how to beat back the state's $5 billion projected deficit. Republicans have marched in lockstep behind their proposal, which does not raise taxes but calls for deep cuts that would hit hardest in the Twin Cities and Duluth. Dayton has insisted on a plan to raise income taxes by $2 billion on the state's wealthy to dial back the most painful cuts. The ideological divide has gripped the Capitol since winter.

Once a deal is reached, legislative leaders face the messy business of cajoling members to vote for something they might not entirely agree with.

Several House Republicans said they have given Zellers broad authority to negotiate a deal, so long as he refuses to accept an income tax increase.

"We gave our leaders authority to do what they needed to do to get it done by month's end," said Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines.

The divide among the Senate GOP appears greater.

Some of the most hardline Republicans say they can't accept a budget that's a penny more than $34 billion, even if leaders scrape together more revenue through fees, surcharges or other sources that do not include tax hikes.

What if Koch asked members to approve a $35 billion budget?

"I don't think she has the votes," said Assistant Majority Leader Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville. "And I don't think she'd do it."

With no sign of a deal, shutdown preparations are intensifying -- even in organizations with thin tethers to state government. Canterbury Park, the horse racing track in Shakopee, is jamming two extra races in on Thursday that had been scheduled for the holiday weekend, because it can't operate without the state Racing Commission.

"This is the best option for the trainers, jockeys and horses involved," Canterbury Park President Randy Sampson said.

Meanwhile, Dayton and legislators took time away from the bargaining table to attend a memorial service for the late DFL Sen. Linda Scheid, who died June 15 from ovarian cancer.

In a day of partisan budget bickering, elected leaders from all political stripes found harmony on one issue: Scheid was a powerful force who will be deeply missed.

"Everybody loved Linda," Koch said. "She was one of the good ones, thoughtful and principled. She always made you feel special. That's why we're all here."

Dayton joked about the bipartisan outpouring at the service, saying: "We have so many legislators here we could have a special session right now."

Staff writer Bob von Sternberg contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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