Friday, July 1, 2011

Minnesota shutdown prompts political blame game

Minn. government shuts down as budget talks fail

Minnesota demonstrators
Hundreds of demonstrators, including state worker Michelle Lewis, center, of Hastings, Minn., hold a candlelight vigil (using glow sticks) outside the Minnesota State Capitol, as negotiations between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton failed, forcing a government shutdown. (Genevieve Ross / AP Photo / June 30, 2011)

Minnesota stumbled into its second government shutdown in six years on Thursday, with a partisan divide over taxes and spending to close a $5 billion deficit becoming only more bitter as a midnight deadline came and went without agreement.

Any hope of a last-minute budget deal between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders evaporated around 10 p.m., when Dayton appeared to say he and Republicans were still fundamentally divided over how much the state should spend the next two years and that he saw no chance of avoiding a shutdown.
"It's significant that this shutdown will begin on the Fourth of July weekend," Dayton said. "On that date we celebrate our independence. It also reminds us there are causes and struggles worth fighting for."

Republicans appeared again minutes later, and tried to hang blame for the shutdown around the governor's neck. They said the two sides were closer than he admitted, and they criticized his refusal to call a special session so lawmakers could pass a "lights on" budget bill to keep government running. Dayton refused, saying he's been clear for months that he would only agree to a total budget approach.

"I think the governor's insistence that we pass a full budget is not going to be of much comfort to Minnesotans who are going to see delays on the highways because construction projects stop," said Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo. "It's not going to comfort people who can't use our state parks, or who can't get a driver's license."

The two sides didn't meet again ahead of the deadline.

The shutdown means thousands of layoffs, a standstill for road projects and padlocked state parks just ahead of the Fourth of July weekend. The effects were already being felt hours ahead of the deadline, as people rushed Thursday to get driver's and fishing licenses, and park officials began warning campers to pack their gear and leave.

Though nearly all states are having severe budget problems this year, Minnesota was alone in its futility, thanks to Dayton's determination to raise taxes on high-earners to close a $5 billion deficit and the Republican Legislature's insistance that the gap should be closed by cutting spending.

Negotiations between Dayton and legislative leaders were fitful Thursday, starting and stopping with no outward signs of progress. After talks broke down for the last time, Dayton and GOP leaders gave conflicting accounts of the last few rounds of offers.

Republican Sen. Michelle Benson said earlier in the day she wasn't budging, a position that Republican leaders held to even after it became clear the shutdown was more.

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