Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders were in an all-out scramble Sunday to finalize agreements on the state's next two-year, $46 billion budget — and running into a time crunch as they edged closer to the last day of the session.

By late Sunday, the House and Senate had passed only three of 10 budget bills that will shape the state's next spending plan. Among the biggest challenges as private budget talks tumbled on: finding agreement on spending on transportation and health and human services programs, and final details on hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts sought by Republicans.

"I'm feeling good, but I'm the eternal optimist," said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, chairman of the House Taxes Committee. Lawmakers must adjourn by midnight Monday to avoid a special session to finish their work.

"We'll get there," Davids said.

GOP leaders said they believed Dayton, a DFLer, would sign the first three budget bills they passed Sunday, with funding for public colleges and universities, another for the state Department of Agriculture and related programs, and a third for environmental operations, including parks, trails and fish and game programs.

Dayton and top aides along with House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and several other top lawmakers spent Sunday in a series of closed-door meetings. They reported few details other than that the two sides were making progress and expected to continue working nonstop though the night and up to Monday's deadline.

Tax cuts scaled back

Daudt said Sunday evening that he still believed a global spending deal was within reach but admitted he was starting to sweat the shrinking amount of time.

GOP leaders agreed earlier in the week to scale back their $1 billion tax-cut package to $660 million and were hoping to hold to that number. Dayton, meanwhile, has been pushing to use much of the state's $1.65 billion surplus to help fund such priority areas as health and human services and expanded prekindergarten classes at public schools.

The higher education and agriculture bills represent some of the smallest pieces of the budget. While lawmakers were widely supportive of the agriculture funding plan, the higher education package was more divisive.

Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, said the higher education bill would contribute to an ongoing lowering of state support for its public colleges and universities, with higher tuition as one of the consequences. The bill boosts overall spending on higher education by $210 million over the current two-year budget cycle, but DFLers said it fails to keep up with inflation and other demands, particularly at the University of Minnesota.

The bill provides $54 million in new spending for the U, which falls short of Dayton's $97 million recommendation and the university's $147 million request.

"At the end of the day, we have prioritized tax cuts ahead of the students of Minnesota," Isaacson said. "The Republican Party, the Minnesota GOP, is raising tuition by starving [the U] of funds."

Deal on buffer law

Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, pointed out that the measure boosts funding at smaller campuses around the state, including colleges in Alexandria and White Bear Lake.

"It helps the schools, it helps the students and there are a lot of good things in this bill that are being overlooked," Fischbach said.

The environment budget bill, passed just before 11 p.m. Sunday, includes a compromise on one of its most controversial items. Republicans had pushed for a delay in implementing a "buffer" law, which requires stretches of plants and grasses between farmland and waterways. GOP leaders said they agreed to a compromise: keeping the law on schedule but allowing an eight-month grace period before it is enforced.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790