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Last-chance negotiations begin in silence

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's governor and legislative leaders sequestered themselves this morning for what was described as a final run at making a budget deal to avoid a Friday government shutdown.

On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said that today is the last chance for action since a special legislative session is needed to approve any deal. And with 200 lawmakers scattered around the state, scheduling a special session before the Thursday night deadline must happen today.

"I'm always optimistic," Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said as she walked into the governor's office with House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

Dayton and legislative leaders refuse to discuss the progress of negotiations. However, there have been no indications that they are close to an agreement and several hints they remain far apart.

They are discussing nine budget bills to fund various parts of state government. Only agriculture programs have been funded, but if there is a government shutdown even some of those programs may not have access to their funds.

A shutdown is possible because after Thursday most state executive branch agencies will have no authorization to spend money. However, a judge is allowing the courts to remain open and legislative offices will stay open into July.

Another judge is expected to rule today or Thursday what executive branch programs may continue in a shutdown.

Going into negotiations, Democrats and Republicans had many differences in how to spend the state's money, but an even bigger difference about how much to spend.

Dayton proposes a $35.8 billion budget for the two years beginning Friday, fueled in part by a $1.8 billion tax increase on Minnesota's highest earners. Republicans reject the tax and pledged to limit spending to $34 billion.