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Minnesota budget talks mysteriously break off

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota budget talks mysteriously ended Sunday afternoon, and negotiators refused to say why they broke off as the state faces a potential Friday government shutdown.

"Until we have come to completion on the budget" those involved will not talk, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said.

Republican spokesmen said they knew of no further meetings planned among Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders.

It was not clear if the meeting broke up because of disagreements among the parties or if negotiations could continue Monday.

"Talks have concluded for the day," Senate GOP spokesman Michael Brodkorb said little more than an hour after they began, adding that he did not know the circumstances.

Dayton's office did not respond to questions about the negotiations.

After Friday and Saturday talks, Dayton, Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, told reporters they were making progress. After the short Sunday session, they left the meeting via doors not visible to the media.

Throughout this year's budget talks, at least Zellers and Koch have been willing to talk.

The negotiations' abrupt end came after a smiling Dayton told reporters as he walked into the House meeting room that he remained optimistic a budget deal was possible.

Sunday was the third day of what was described as marathon negotiations, which Zellers called in an attempt to solve a budget impasse that has lasted for months. Without a new budget, much of state government could be forced to shut down Friday.

House Tax Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said he remains optimistic.

"I am hoping there is not a Dayton shutdown," he said Sunday afternoon, adding that an agreement seldom comes before "the last second."

Davids said that if negotiators reach an agreement before Friday, Dayton would need to call a special legislative session this week so lawmakers could pass a temporary budget while specifics are worked out. The final budget then would come in front of the Legislature next month.

If there is no budget in place by Friday, most state programs have no authorization to continue to operate. The state Constitution requires the Legislature to appropriate money.

No one knows what would be open if government shuts down Friday. Services such as the State Patrol and prisons likely could continue to operate, but most state programs are in question.

Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin of Ramsey County District Court is to issue a ruling early this week on whether the state can continue some funding even without a budget.

In a Thursday hearing, Gearin warned that the "constitutional crisis" the state faces may end in a shutdown in which she restricts what the state can continue to do.

She said that "real people will be losing jobs" and businesses could close if political leaders do not reach an agreement.

One outcome Gearin discussed in court would be for her to appoint a "special master," perhaps a retired Supreme Court justice, to decide specifics of what could stay open in a shutdown.

While many in state government await Gearin's decision, those involved in the courts will be in a Ramsey County courtroom today to see if a retired judge will allow the state judicial branch to remain operating in a shutdown.

Democrat Dayton wants a $35.8 billion budget for the two years beginning Friday, funded in part by a $1.8 billion tax increase on the state's top earners.

Republicans who hold House and Senate majorities went into negotiations insisting they will not spend more than $34 billion and they reject any tax increase.

Legislative leaders and Dayton will not say if they have discussed the overall spending target in the past three days.

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.