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Agreement on bill funding DNR, state parks reached
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Sen. Dean Johnson, a Democrat from Willmar, who says leaders agreed to pass an agriculture and environment bill today that would keep the parks open. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
A partial state government shutdown could begin at midnight Thursday, after lawmakers once again failed to reach a budget deal on Wednesday night. Talks are resuming in the governor's office, but the clock is ticking toward tonight's deadline. Without a budget deal in place, some services won't be funded. There is one bright spot in the picture: lawmakers plan to pass a bill to fund state parks, just in time for the holiday weekend.

St. Paul, Minn. — Legislative leaders emerged from the governor's residence late Wednesday to report good news and bad news. First, the good news.

"I would say to all the families of Minnesota, continue your plans to go to state parks," said Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, a Democrat from Willmar, who says leaders agreed to pass an agriculture and environment bill today that would keep the parks open.

The bad news is that they didn't agree on two other bills that have stymied leaders for months.

"Unresolved continues to be the health and human services, and ultimately the tax bill, the raising of the revenues," he said. The lack of a deal on those major bills means a partial government shutdown is nearly certain, according to Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon. Sviggum accused Democrats of trying to force a government shutdown to make Gov. Pawlenty look bad..

"There was no effort from the DFL to negotiate and cooperate in the best interests of the state. There was no effort," Sviggum maintained.

DFL leaders say they don't want a shutdown that would mean layoffs for thousands of state workers. To prevent that, they plan to pass a "lights on" bill in the Senate today that would fund state government at current spending levels past July 1. That would mean no increase for K-12 schools.

DFL leaders will also try to pass the bill in the House, but probably don't have the votes. Sviggum says Republicans won't support the lights-on bill, because it would be counter-productive.

"It institutionalizes gridlock. We will not do that. And what it does is it delays a week or 30 days or 60 days the exact same decisions that we have before us right now," Sviggum said.

DFL leaders say the lights-on bill would buy negotiators more time to reach agreement. Many legislators, who have little to do but watch and wait, are frustrated with the lack of progress from the private talks between the governor and top legislative leaders.

Twenty rank-and-file lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have proposed their own plan to resolve the budget impasse. It includes a dollar-a-pack cigarette tax increase, but doesn't include two controversial items: an income tax increase and gambling money.

Republican Sen. Steve Dille of Dassell says the legislators want to get the job done, and came up with the plan in about 10 minutes.

"There's a broad range of possible opinions and solutions here, and we're not that rigid ... you've got to be flexible and go with the flow and not be just be so far right or far left that you can't meet in the middle," Dille said.

Legislative leaders say the group's plan wouldn't work, because it fails to balance the budget by about $200 million.

In the absence of a budget deal, state officials continue to plan for what would be the first government shutdown in Minnesota history. Minnesota is also the only state facing that predicament at the moment, according to fiscal analyst Arturo Perez from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"There are 37 states that have completed passage of their budgets for the new fiscal year," he said. "Of the remaining states, many could very well run into early July if not later without a budget in place, but will continue government operations ... with the passage of continuing budget resolutions."

Minnesota doesn't have constitutional authority for a continuing budget resolution, which funds state government even if a budget isn't in place. If the Legislature doesn't pass spending bills, the state must shut down government.

Last week, a judge ordered the state to continue to provide services essential to the life, health and safety of Minnesotans. The judge also appointed retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice Ed Stringer as special master to hear disputes over what are core services. Among Stringer's first recommendations are that the state should fund AIDS prevention and transit in outstate Minnesota, but not job searches for the unemployed.