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No progress in talks Saturday -- legislative session heading for a train wreck

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ST. PAUL -- Two high-level meetings Saturday showed no progress toward solving Minnesota's budget dispute.

The stalemate, which produced familiar rhetoric from both sides, prompted one legislative staffere to joke: "This could have been November."

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But it was no joke. What Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders said after they met Saturday sounded a lot like what they said on election night in November when Minnesota voters turned control of the governor's office over to a Democrat for the first time in two decades and gave Republicans legislative control for the first time in nearly four decades.

"Not a lot of movement in this meeting," Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said as she and other Republican leaders left Dayton's office.

Moments later, Dayton said meetings with legislative leaders and some committee chairmen produced "good discussion," but criticized the GOP for refusing to discuss bringing new money into state government.

"I'm not going to their position," he declared.

The most difficult difference to bridge between Dayton and the GOP is in that the governor wants to spend $35.8 billion in the next two years, aided by a higher tax on the 2 percent best-earning Minnesotans. Republicans set their spending limit at $34 billion and say they will not consider a tax increase.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said plenty of silent pauses punctuated Saturday's first budget meeting.

That lack of discussion was further proof that the Legislature and Dayton will, by most accounts, miss their Monday night deadline to enact a budget. All nine spending and tax bills the Republican-controlled Legislature passed are on Dayton's desk, where they likely will be vetoed, and there will be too little time to rewrite and the bills.

Dayton and Republican leaders say they have not given up on finishing on time, but most other legislators have.

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said early Saturday after representatives defeated a bill funding flood-prevention projects that he expects a special legislative session, and that the session will include debate on a more inclusive public works bill.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said a special session also probably will include discussion of a new Vikings football stadium and other unresolved issues, such as a bill dealing with government pensions.

If the budget remains unfinished Monday night, Dayton can call a special session to finish the work. Normally when budget issues remain at the end of the regular session, legislative leaders and the governor negotiate while most lawmakers remain home, with the governor calling a special session only when an agreement is reached.

If no budget is passed by July 1, the state government would begin shutting down.

A bill funding agriculture programs, including food inspection, passed and Dayton signed it into law earlier in the session. But it is only a small fraction of the state budget and is the only part of the budget enacted.

Dayton on Saturday night repeated his pledge not to sign just one budget bill unless he signs all of them.

Some lawmakers have begin discussing a "lights on bill" to keep government running in case a new budget is not in place by July 1.

Legislative leaders dismiss the attempts in public and private. A lawmaker at a private Republican meeting said what when a member asked about a lights on bill, leaders dismissed it.

Dayton deflected questions about a lights on measure, saying it will be Republicans' fault if a budget deal is missed.

Bakk said that politically for Dayton, a lights on bill would not put pressure on Republicans to compromise.

However, he said, public pressure could force movement that has not been seen. A recent poll shows two-thirds of Minnesotans support a combined tax increase and budget cutting approach to the budget.

Bakk said Republicans do not think Dayton will stand his ground. "They have been underestimating the governor all along."

Koch said that Dayton should agree to a public education funding bill soon because Republicans and Dayton proposals would spend about the same. She said Dayton is holding schools hostage by not signing the bill.

However, Dayton's office distributed a document showing great differences between the governor and GOP, both in spending and policy issues contained in the bill.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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