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House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch walk into the governor's office Thursday morning for a final day of negotiations to avoid a government shutdown. Photo by Don Davis/State Capitol Bureau

Lawmakers, demonstrators fill Capitol as possible shutdown looms

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislative leaders bought themselves some budget negotiating time today by summoning their members to the Capitol, but those talks were stop and go throughout the day.

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There was no indication if there were problems with the budget talks as legislative leaders spent more time talking to each other and their members than they did the governor.

If today's meetings produce a budget deal, a special legislative session could come late tonight to pass a temporary budget.

The longest-serving Minnesota Senate majority leader, watching the proceedings today because the events are historic, did not expect a deal.

There is little chance of an agreement, Roger Moe said. "Someone has got to say 'uncle' at some point," most likely after political pressure comes from a government shutdown.

With most of the state's 200 legislators in their offices, a special legislative session could be convened even late tonight to pass a temporary state budget and avoid a state government shutdown that would begin Friday. But Gov. Mark Dayton said he will not call a special session unless there is an overall budget agreement.

Today's off-again, on-again meetings are the latest in nearly a week of marathon negotiations aimed at producing a budget agreement. Without a budget, many state services stop this midnight.

While leaders walked into the governor's office at 10 a.m., the Capitol and steps in front of the domed building filled with people demonstrating against a shutdown. Demonstrations were planned off and on, much like budget talks, until late tonight.

Most Democrats and many Republicans attended a Monday night memorial service for Sen. Linda Scheid, who died earlier this month, and remained in St. Paul in anticipation of a special budget session.

Dayton is the only person who can call a special session, and he says he will not do so unless there is an overall deal on all areas of the budget. If that deal comes about, he could call a session tonight to pass a temporary budget, giving bill writers time to finish nine budget bills needed to fund government.

The nine people in budget talks are not saying much outside of negotiations, but the little that slips out indicates Democrat Dayton and Republicans who control the Legislature are getting closer. Not even those inside the talks appear to know if they are close enough that a deal could come today.

"It needs to," Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said going into this morning's talks.

The shutdown scenario comes about because Republicans and Dayton do not agree on how much to spend in the next two years, and what programs should get that money.

Republicans went into the talks insisting that the budget, to begin Friday, be no larger than $34 billion. They repeatedly have rejected any tax increases like Dayton wants.

The latest Dayton offer before the talks was to spend $35.8 billion, with a $1.8 billion tax increase on the state's highest earners.

While talks resumed this morning, state workers and private workers with state contracts were shutting down operations.

Along interstate highways, for instance, barricades were going up to weigh stations and rest areas. Road construction sites were being mothballed. More than 20,000 state workers were cleaning out their desks.

A judge on Wednesday ordered that more than a third of state employees remain at work during a shutdown to deliver what she called essential services. That means prison guards will be on duty, state troopers will travel the highways, most Minnesotans who receive state-funded health care will be served and people needed to write a state budget will remain on the job.

But programs ranging from the lottery to state parks will close if there is no budget deal.

In other shutdown news:

-- Three loggers have sued the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to allow them to continue to cut trees in state forests in a shutdown.

-- School funding will continue, but only six people will remain on the state Education Department staff.

-- People involved in the state's two horse-racing tracks asked the courts to allow the Racing Commission to operate, saying that it does not operate on state money.

-- Bureau of Criminal Apprehension crime scene investigations will continue, but not all of the bureau's functions.

-- Driver's license tests will not be available, but driver's licenses will be renewed at local license bureaus.

-- The State Capitol will close.

-- Secretary of State Mark Ritchie will keep his office fully open.

-- Road construction sites are being shut down, and drivers U.S. 61 near the Split Rock River in Lake County experienced long backups as a thin asphalt layer was being put down for service during a shutdown.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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