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Blame game heats up as budget work hits a standstill

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Legislature’s budget work hit a standstill Thursday with less than two weeks remaining in session, as the Republican-led Senate was unable to pass its own budget bills and there were no negotiations between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP leaders.

The two sides have major differences on both spending and policy. Dayton has proposed a $46 billion spending package while Republicans are pushing for $1 billion less, with a $1 billion-plus tax cut bill. Frustrated by the lack of progress after more than a week of private meetings, the Legislature forged ahead this week to send half of its own budget to Dayton’s desk for a sure veto.

But even that futile exercise stalled for a second straight day Thursday, as a Republican senator’s absence to care for her ailing father left the GOP short of the votes needed to pass budget bills. It was unclear when Sen. Carla Nelson, of Rochester, would return to the Capitol.

Dayton said he would veto the five completed budget bills by Friday morning, and the rest whenever they get to his desk.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he was pushing to resume talks with Dayton, but Dayton said that would have to wait until they finish sending the bills. House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Dayton blamed each other for the lack of action. Daudt said Republicans’ message to voters in the event of a collapse would be that the Legislature finished its work by sending Dayton budget bills.

“They pulled out,” Dayton countered. “I’m not going to take the blame for the fact that we’re not meeting to negotiate.”

Still, Dayton and legislative leaders were confident there was enough time to finish the budget by a May 22 deadline. Last-minute deals and a flurry of final votes are standard practice at the Capitol during the biennial task of setting a new budget.

Both sides are hoping to avoid a repeat of 2011, when Dayton and a GOP-controlled Legislature deadlocked over how to solve a $6 billion budget deficit, triggering a 20-day government shutdown. This time around they have a $1.65 billion surplus, and Dayton said voters would blame them all if they don’t finish on time.

Among the many remaining differences is more than $470 million in cuts to health care program services in the GOP’s budget. Despite the lack of high-level bargaining, Gazelka said individual lawmakers were working to line up a more palatable set of budget reductions that would still leave enough money for the major package of tax cuts and transportation funding Republicans want.