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Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and Cullen Sheehan (right in stripes) walked toward Gov. Mark Dayton's office Sunday afternoon as they hammered out budget details.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Chance for quick budget deal fades

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON
  • Star Tribune
  • July 17, 2011 - 9:55 PM

Four days after the announcement of a budget deal, fresh signs emerged Sunday that the agreement is not coming together as first hoped and that Republican legislative leaders are struggling to string together the necessary votes.

A handful of GOP senators crucial to a deal said they can't yet commit to the agreement, even as party leaders were huddled in closed-door meetings at the State Capitol to finalize the $35 billion budget and end the longest state government shutdown in the nation's recent history.

"I don't know what the outcome will be," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader David Thompson, R-Lakeville. "I have some concerns, certainly, but I am not sure what I am going to do yet."

The slow slog toward finalizing the details has left DFL Gov. Mark Dayton unwilling to call a special session and 22,000 laid-off state workers wondering when they will return to work. Republican legislative leaders blew through their self-imposed Friday deadline to finalize bills, but gave no clues over the weekend about what caused the delays and when they might be done.

Dayton had hoped to call a special session for Monday, but late Sunday he and Republican leaders issued a joint statement that dimmed hopes for an early-week resolution.

"Work on the detailed budget bills continues to move in a positive direction, with an urgent focus on getting Minnesotans back to work," the statement said. "A special session will be called as soon as our work is completed, and all bills have been reviewed and agreed upon."

Democratic legislators said GOP leaders have frozen them out of budget talks, so they have no plans to put up any votes for the final budget deal. That means Republicans, who hold small majorities in both bodies, must come through with nearly all of their votes to pass a budget.

Questions remained about whether rank-and-file Republicans would support the final agreement, which spends more than many wanted, relies heavily on borrowing and doesn't include a GOP menu of hard-fought social policies such as abortion restrictions and a measure to require voters to show photo ID.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said she would be able to deliver the necessary votes, but that seemed far from certain Sunday afternoon.

"It's a difficult situation," said Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing. "There are difficulties with the details and difficulties with the votes."

If Republican legislative leaders can't deliver the votes necessary for a deal, they might need to ask Democrats for help keeping the agreement on the rails. That could come at a steep price politically for Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he's been crafting a plan in case Republicans come looking for a few votes.

Like many Republicans, Bakk said he is strongly against the plan to borrow $700 million and repay it with tobacco settlement money. He proposed ditching the borrowing and trading it for an as-yet-unspecified tax increase.

He knows Republicans have been strongly opposed to a tax hike, so he makes a compelling offer -- every DFL vote in the Senate. "I will put up votes for a tax increase in lieu of the borrowing," Bakk said. "I only need five or six [Republican votes]."

An offer like that could scare enough Republicans to vote for the existing plan, no matter how unsavory.

"Every day we set a new record, one we are not proud of," Howe said of the shutdown, which is in its 18th day Monday. "We need to get people back to work now."

Amid all the legislative intrigue, Dayton expressed an upbeat confidence Sunday.

"I think we are getting closer," the governor said. "But as Yogi Berra said, 'It ain't over until it's over.' "

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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