Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders clammed up Wednesday about their still-unresolved negotiations on the two-year state budget, an information void that was increasingly filled by rising political tension among rank-and-file lawmakers who are not part of the private talks.
Dayton, GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt, DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and other top Capitol leaders met on and off throughout the day at Dayton's Summit Avenue residence, ending their talks at 10:30 p.m. without comment.
The principals mostly avoided any public pronouncements about the state of talks, often a signal that some progress is being made toward a deal that would end the legislative session on time by next Monday night.
Among the top-line issues under discussion at the governor's residence are the House GOP's desire to cut taxes by about $2 billion and eliminate the MinnesotaCare health insurance program for the working poor in favor of enrolling those individuals in MNsure. Dayton and Senate Democrats are seeking a big boost in school funding, and a gas tax increase to fund transportation projects. Republicans too favor an ambitious roads-and-bridges plan, but oppose a higher gasoline tax.
In what brief public comments they did make Wednesday, Daudt and Bakk indicated that GOP plans for MinnesotaCare had been a frequent topic of discussion in the private talks. Republicans have zeroed in on the fact that a 2-percent tax on medical providers that funds MinnesotaCare will sunset in 2019, saying it's an issue lawmakers must grapple with now.
"Obviously, this is something we can't just ignore," Daudt said Wednesday. "We need to deal with it and we're working through that."
Back at the Capitol, talk about the possibility of a special session and even another government shutdown was in the air. In a meeting of the House-Senate conference committee on taxes, members bemoaned their inability to make substantive moves as they wait for "Summit Avenue decisions," in the words of Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston.
A day earlier in the same committee, Davids joked — but with an edge — about the possibility the Legislature would not pass a tax bill at all this year. The state's projected $2 billion budget surplus makes a tax bill unnecessary, and Bakk has increasingly suggested that in the absence of compromise with House Republicans, they might forgo it entirely this year.
"For me, that's like not having Christmas," Davids said.
During the Senate's Wednesday floor session, senators got into a long, partisan squabble about the possibility of a special session and government shutdown. Republicans tried to bring forward a bill sponsored by Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, that would keep state government operating even if lawmakers have not passed a new two-year budget by July 1, which is when a shutdown otherwise would commence.
"This is one step to assuring the public there will be an orderly process to running government," said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. But Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said it was way too early to wave a white flag over the budget talks.
"It's way too early to even subtly communicate that at this time," Sheran said. "This is about sending a message to the public that we anticipate a shutdown."
The Senate rejected the measure on a party-line vote.
Abby Simons and J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.