As legislators slog toward Monday's deadline with no budget deal, a growing number of Capitol leaders are becoming resigned to the idea that the state is on a runaway ride toward a government shutdown.
Some of them are already taking steps to prepare for what could be the most profound political standoff in recent state history, resulting in the layoffs of thousands of state workers and possibly even mothballing the Capitol.
By law, the state's budget runs out at the end of June. If nothing has been passed by lawmakers to replace it, the government funding spigot shuts off.
During the 2005 partial government shutdown, legislators and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty struck deals on a number of bills that kept the lights on at the Capitol and basic services running in a patchwork manner. This time, though, the hardship could be far more widespread.
Republicans met with Gov. Mark Dayton twice Saturday and reported no progress in breaking their deadlock over how to balance the budget.
"Not a lot of movement," Republican Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch said after the afternoon meeting.
Moments later, Dayton emerged briefly from his office. "This is just nonsensical that they are not willing to be reasonable and balanced and meet me halfway," he said.
Dayton could prove the wildcard. A Democrat with a strong belief in the need for government and strong ties to unionized government workers who stand to lose their paychecks, Dayton has so far given no clue what he would do to limit, or exploit, the pain of the shutdown.
Sen. Doug Magnus, a Republican who served during the 2005 standoff, believes both sides will have to look for a way to back away from the precipice.
"There will be a lot of blustering and threats and all this," said Magnus. But in the end, a shutdown "will be a really difficult thing to do for both sides."
Some observers say that voter pressure on Republicans could become intense if they make no move to compromise with the governor on a spending plan. Others say Dayton would do everything possible to avoid closing government, a gargantuan economic engine in the state.
The stakes are huge, in part, because the two sides have agreed on so little.
Of all the areas of the state's projected $39 billion budget, the only area where Dayton and legislators have found accord is the $76 million agriculture finance bill. Dayton has vowed to reject the rest of the bills now sitting on his desk unless he gets a global budget deal. He has until the middle of this week to act.
No deal, and the state has little power to spend money after July 1.
About that time, a court-appointed officer could have a final say on what services -- such as prisons and public safety -- are essential and must be funded. In the 2005 case, a judge stepped in and ordered Minnesota to protect services that safeguard health, safety and property, including state law enforcement, nursing homes and food inspections.
In the end, portions of state government shut down for eight days, leaving 9,000 state employees out of work.
Dayton said he won't start planning for a government shutdown until Tuesday, if lawmakers head home with no budget agreement.
Behind the scenes, shutdown preparations already have begun.
"We are telling them they need to prepare for the possibility that they may go for some period of time without a paycheck," said Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, which gave Dayton his first campaign endorsement back when he appeared to be a long-shot candidate. ASFCME represents nearly 20,000 state workers.
Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said his department has taken a new look at its 2005 government shutdown plan.
"Obviously, July 1st is two months away," Landwehr said recently. "We're starting to think about what we might have to do in that case."
Dayton's commissioners will be left in the uncomfortable position of sorting out which employees are essential during a shutdown -- and get paid -- and which ones aren't.
"There were employees that came up to me after they received their furlough notice and said, 'Well, what do you mean I am not essential to this organization?'" said Kevin Goodno, who was Human Services commissioner during the 2005 shutdown. "It wasn't easy."
On Saturday, a handful of Republican legislators introduced what's known as a lights-on bill that would keep state government running at 70 percent in the event of a shutdown. It was unclear whether Republicans would pass the bill. However, even if it passes the Legislature, the bill is unlikely to get Dayton's signature, since it would wipe out much of his leverage in budget negotiations.
The journey toward stalemate has been envisioned by some participants for months.
Shutdown talk began long ago
Just two weeks after the session started this winter, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, held a 20-minute shutdown primer to warn members of the challenges ahead.
At a March Minnesota GOP executive committee meeting, party Chairman Tony Sutton predicted "the Republican-controlled Legislature will pass a balanced budget, leaving the government shutdown on the shoulders of Governor Dayton," according a report from the meeting.
If no deal is reached by Monday, it's far from certain Dayton would call lawmaker back before a shutdown unless it's clear that a deal is in sight. That would leave legislators in their home districts, without the partisan camaraderie of the session, to face angry constituents once the realities of a shutdown take hold.
"Parades were not real pleasant," Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, recalled of the 2005 shutdown. "That's where it was most noticed; where people would shout their concerns."
With just hours left in the session, legislators were feeling the heat -- but not seeing a swift end to the showdown.
"Something has got to move," said Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker. "We are not going to sit here until the elections of 2012 without solving the problem. We know we can't."
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