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Today's $34 billion (or more) question: deal or no deal?

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislative leaders bought themselves some budget negotiating time today by summoning their members to the Capitol.

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With most of the state's 200 legislators in their offices, a special legislative session could be convened even late tonight today 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.

Leaders met with Dayton this morning, 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 began to fill with people demonstrating against a shutdown. Demonstrations were planned until at least 11 p.m.

Talks also could last that long because most legislators were in the Capitol complex or en route.

Most Democrats and many Republicans attended a Monday night memorial service for Sen. Linda Scheid, who died earlier this month. They 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. He said 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 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.

Senate Republicans met this morning, while Democratic-Farmer-Labor senators met Wednesday, but those inside the meetings said legislative leaders did not reveal a lot about negotiations.

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.

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