NORTHFIELD, MINN. - The scent of fresh coffee wafted through the Quarterback Club as Chuck DeMann and the regulars filed in for their daily fix of sports, politics and scrambled eggs.
As the retired car dealer filled a coffee mug, the talk turned to the state budget battle in St. Paul. DeMann pounced, defending Republican lawmakers for "sticking to their guns" and holding the line in their stalemate with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
"A $34 billion state budget is enough," said the feisty 85-year-old World War II veteran. "The Legislature has done their job. They've answered the call of the people who elected them."
A few tables away, Peggy Prowe and Sue Lloyd, spouses of retired Carleton College professors, disagreed. They said they regret the tone of the fight and unwillingness of the Republican-controlled Legislature to meet Dayton halfway to address the projected $5 billion deficit.
"My leanings are towards the governor, but it doesn't matter," Lloyd said. "How we've come to such extremes I don't know. But it feels to me like it's just more mean this year than in other years. It just doesn't feel Minnesotan."
The voters are cranky in Minnesota House District 25B. And they aren't shy about saying so.
In a strip of the state defined as much by its political diversity and tight legislative races as it is by its mix of college campuses, rich farmland and exurban neighborhoods, the budget impasse and prospect of a state government shutdown this summer has struck a nerve.
"Nobody budged," said Al Linder, 66, a local insurance and investment brokerage firm owner. "That's the sad part. Nobody budged. I guess I just don't understand why there can't be compromise."
It's the prevailing thought across the district, which runs northwest from eastern Rice County to southern Scott County and west to the Minnesota River town of Belle Plaine.
Some seem resigned to the gridlock, saying it was almost inevitable after last November, when voters gave Republicans control of the Legislature and elected a Democrat governor.
District 25B voters ousted DFL incumbent David Bly by 37 votes, but supported Dayton by a slim margin. Bly, a school teacher from Northfield, lost by 46 votes when he first ran for the House seat in 2002. Four years later, he won by 60 votes.
"I'm not bothered by it," said Griff Wigley, a Northfield resident who writes for a local blog. "Both sides are reading the tea leaves of who got them there. And that's the problem with a split state. I don't fault either side really for sticking to their guns."
But others say it's a mess that could have been -- and should have been -- avoided in difficult economic times.
"The boys up at the Capitol are more concerned about what side of the road they are on than making good decisions," said Jim Johnson, a former farmer who runs a gas station and convenience store in Northfield. "I just wish they could de-brand themselves when they get into the Capitol there and just get down to some good work. Being on a farm, being an independent businessman, I have to make decisions. I don't have the time to argue with my neighbor."
The tone of the recent rhetoric hasn't helped, in the minds of many voters.
Some fault Dayton, a first-term governor, for digging in and vetoing the Republican budget. Dayton blamed "right-wing" legislators for the mess and said the proposed Republican cuts were "extremely harsh and unfair."
"I just don't think that the leadership is there," said Tom Meger, a former Belle Plaine mayor who runs a jewelry business in town.
Others say the Republicans, bolstered by their election success and the firebrand nature of some of their freshmen, are to blame for failing to budge.
"It just feels as though there is no hope," a discouraged Lloyd said. "To me, that's the difference this year. I see no end to it. And that's what is so scary and frustrating.
"Are there middle [ground] people? I don't know anymore."
Regardless of their politics, many voters agree that if a deal isn't reached in a special session by the end of the state's fiscal year June 30 and a shutdown kicks in, everybody loses.
"I'm not cynical on it, but I do think both sides will be tarnished by a shutdown," Wigley said.
A special session will be expensive. A shutdown could cost millions. Cities almost certainly would lose some, if not most, of their local government aid from the state. That, in turn, would force administrators to adjust budgets already in place for 2011.
In Belle Plaine, which budgeted $340,000 in state aid for 2011, that could mean service cuts and property tax increases.
"We've got to generate a budget that has to hold up for next year and I don't know the status of it," said Mayor Tim Lies. Lies said he's been especially frustrated that legislators spent time on issues such as a Vikings stadium and the gay marriage amendment "when, in fact, a lot of these guys have run on fiscal and job-creation issues."
Parks, schools wonder
A shutdown also would affect state parks at their busiest.
Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, a popular camping and hiking spot, is only a 15-minute drive from Northfield. The park would remain open to daily visitors in the event of a shutdown, but overnight camping would be prohibited, said Elaine Feikema, park manager.
Schools too, could be affected.
On the campus of St. Cloud State University, in a swing district where Republican Rep. King Banaian narrowly won the 15B House race, there's growing concern about potential glitches with scheduling, registration and other activities.
Sam Ivey, a senior political science major, said the university has a contingency plan in the event of a government shutdown, but said "it's a little early to run around screaming 'The sky is falling!'
"There's always that lingering concern, but I personally have a little more faith in our system," said Ivey, who is student government president and also works as a teaching assistant.
That said, Ivey, a native of Rogers, admitted she also is frustrated by the budget stalemate.
"I'm a political science major. I understand why they do it. But down to the wire? Why does it have to come to this?"
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425