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ANALYSIS: Budget, shutdown about spending dispute

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's news media have inundated the state's residents in recent days with government shutdown news.

Special master. Taxes. Offer. Rejection. Non-profits. Blind services. Zoo. Licenses. Closed.

It is too much for a person to comprehend. But the main reason for the shutdown is as simple as what breaks up so many marriages: How much money should be spent?

In many minds, a secondary reason is inexperience of the main players.

But first things first: Chief budget negotiators (Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature) have met only twice since failing to agree on a budget before the July 1 deadline, an impasse that forced the government shutdown. Last Wednesday's meeting, the latest, ended after just 15 minutes with Republicans saying the talks went backwards as they rejected a Dayton tax-increase offer.

No further talks are scheduled and each side appears to be waiting for the other to make the next move.

With no negotiations planned, 22,000 state workers remain off the job and services they provide mostly have stopped. However, more than 11,000 state employees do remain working to provide what a judge determined to be essential services and a few more are heading back to work after the judge accepted "special master" recommendations to restore some programs.

Besides state workers, perhaps 10,000 private workers, such as those building and fixing roads, are off the job. Bloomberg News reports those layoffs and other shutdown factors could cost the state's economy $23 million a week.

The plain and simple problem that set off what a judge called a "constitutional crisis" is that Dayton and Republicans do not agree on how much money the state should spend in the two-year budget that was supposed to begin July 1. Dayton's latest figure is $35.8 billion, while Republicans will not go for more than $34 billion, and many of them only went that high grudgingly.

Despite all the talk Minnesotans hear about raising taxes or not raising taxes, the issue is about spending. Dayton wants to raise taxes, primarily on the richest Minnesotans, because he thinks the state needs to spend more in areas such as health-care for the poor, elderly and disabled.

One of the Senate's assistant majority leaders said the top GOP leaders are missing an opportunity to explain the problem to the public by talking too much about Dayton's tax proposals.

"The battle is not over taxes or no taxes, the battle is over where we think we should spend the money and how much we should spend," Sen. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, said in an interview.

Magnus, serving his first year in the Senate after eight years in the House, said the budget stalemate has another cause: The state's leaders have no experience in closing government budget deals.

"Anyone can throw the first pitch out in the ball game," he said, but few can come in during the final inning and save the game.

"There are not many people around here who can actually close the deal," Magnus said. "Obviously, the governor is not one of them. ... On our (Republican) side, we have some inexperienced leadership here who have not closed deals themselves.

"I am not blaming either side. I am just stating the facts."

Dayton served in earlier administrations, but this is his first time as chief executive. House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, are in their first majority leadership jobs and neither has led a legislative committee.

The impasse came about after Minnesotans elected the most conservative Legislature in the state's history, giving Republicans control of the House and Senate, while also putting liberal Dayton in office. Both sides blame the other for refusing to seriously negotiate.

"Unfortunately, despite many hours of intense negotiations, the Republican legislative caucuses remain adamantly opposed to any additional tax revenue," Dayton said two hours before the shutdown began.

On Thursday, after a bipartisan panel included tax increases in a budget proposal, Zellers repeated what Republicans have said all along: "It is a retread of failed tax and spend policies. Republicans will not raise taxes to pay for unsustainable government growth."

Something has to give for a budget deal to be cut, and the shutdown to end.

"The governor is stuck in increasing taxes and Republicans are stuck on not increasing taxes," Magnus said. "You have to find a way for ... both sides to save face."

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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.