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Closed Capitol, closed meetings, but no closed budget deal

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ST. PAUL -- Details of Minnesota's next budget slowly took shape Sunday behind closed doors in a state Capitol closed to the public, but a state government shutdown will not end as early as state leaders hoped.

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A planned Monday special legislative session to pass a budget is out of the question, given the large number of loose ends that remain. But leaders said progress is being made.

Gov. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch released a statement Sunday evening saying that budget work continues, but did not give details or when a special session could be called:

"Work on the detailed budget bills continues to move in a positive direction, with an urgent focus on getting Minnesotans back to work. For the last three days, the governor, legislative leaders, committee chairs, commissioners and staff have worked around the clock on legislative language that reflects Thursday's agreement. Considerable progress has been made. A special session will be called as soon as our work is completed and all bills have been reviewed and agreed upon."

A tentative agreement was reached late Sunday afternoon to increase health and human services spending, mostly providing health-care and welfare funding, by $1 billion in the next two years. Details were not released.

Most other areas of the budget that would spend more than $35 billion remained unresolved.

The public will learn what negotiators worked out after Dayton and GOP leaders approve each of the nine budget bills and legislative staffers post the bills on line.

The few comments heard Sunday were like what Sen. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, said: "We are making progress."

While talks continued, 22,000 laid-off state workers and Minnesotans who depend on state services waited to find out when state government might reopen.

It was not clear when a special legislative session could be scheduled to pass a compromise budget. Dayton says he will not call the session until all of the areas of the budget are settled.

Many in the Capitol and State Office Building said negotiators were close on several bills, but Republicans have said for weeks that six bills were nearly ready to pass.

As early as Saturday, it became apparent that the goal of passing the budget on Monday would be missed. While shuttling between meetings Sunday, Magnus said that the goal was ambitious to begin with, but he added that work needs to continue quickly.

"I do believe we have a window of opportunity," Magnus said.

The government shutdown that idled 22,000 state workers began on July 1 after lawmakers and Dayton failed to enact a new budget.

The courts, Legislature and some other offices remain open. A judge ordered about a third of the administration's employees to stay on the job to continue what she deemed to be essential jobs.

Negotiators were trying to fill in details of a vague budget agreement Dayton reached Thursday with Koch, R-Buffalo, and Zellers, R-Maple Grove. It would allow the state to spend more than $35 billion in the next two years, funded in part by money borrowed from schools and payments due the state after winning a tobacco lawsuit.

Besides nine budget bills, members of committees that fund public works projects met during the weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said disagreements remained about the overall public works funding level, as well as spending for specific projects.

Dayton asked for $500 million in public works funding, and Republican leaders apparently agreed to the figure. Much of the money would go to college and university renovations, with funds also available for flood protection projects.

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said last week that he has been ready for the so-called bonding bill since early in the year. Howes, chairman of the House bonding committee, said he is working with Democrats to ensure there are enough votes to pass the bill.

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