July 19, 2011 / 2:00 AM / 6 years ago

Minnesota special session to end shutdown begins

<p>Signage advises campers of conditions at Tettegouche State Park north of Beaver Bay, Minnesota, June 30, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Miller</p>

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - The Minnesota legislature opened a special session on Tuesday afternoon to consider a budget compromise brokered by Democratic Governor Mark Dayton and Republican leaders to end a nearly three-week government shutdown.

Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch detailed plans for the special session in a joint news conference Tuesday at the Capitol in St. Paul.

The governor and the four top Republican and Democratic legislative leaders have agreed to suspend state House and Senate rules to restrict lawmakers to voting only on a dozen spending bills without amendments.

More than 22,000 state government workers were furloughed when Minnesota political leaders failed to reach a deal to close a projected $5 billion budget deficit by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

The debates leading up to the shutdown included Democratic calls for additional revenue and Republican vows to halt spending increases that have mirrored those in the nation’s capital over the debt ceiling.

The House and Senate convened just after 3 p.m.

Zellers told reporters earlier that the House would “move as quickly as possible” to get the bills across to the Senate.

“The process will only be as long as our folks need to pontificate,” Zellers said. “I would say it is better to get people back to work than to talk about a bill.”

Dayton said he would sign the bills as they come through and Minnesota would be “officially lights on” at the conclusion of the special session. He added it was more a matter of subtraction from proposals than additions.

Dayton, Zellers and Koch announced the framework of a budget agreement on Thursday. Since then, they have been working with state commissioners, legislative committee leaders and staff to put together the details for what was expected to be about a $35.4 billion two-year general fund budget.

AN UNHAPPY COMPROMISE

All three have said they were unhappy with the plan they agreed to, but believed they must support the compromise. It stripped out tax increases Dayton had sought and has higher spending levels than Republicans wanted without some social policy changes they sought.

“By definition we are not going to be able to, any of us, walk away saying that we have everything that we want,” Dayton told reporters on Tuesday.

The negotiations over the budget details occurred behind closed doors at a closed Capitol over the last several days.

Late Monday, Dayton ordered the Capitol reopened on Tuesday for the first time since the shutdown began and Republicans started to post finished proposals on legislative websites.

Zellers said most changes were minor, but some major, from conference committee budget reports that have been available publicly since April.

Seven of the bills were posted by Tuesday afternoon: judiciary-public safety, transportation, environment, higher education, jobs, pensions and legacy environmental funding.

Details were pending on elementary and secondary education and health and human services spending, where Republicans had sought the most fiscal and social policy changes.

A bond bill also is on the special session agenda, but not yet posted. Dayton proposed that lawmakers approve at least $500 million of bonds for capital projects. The state normally passes bonding bills in even-numbered years.

A Minnesota Vikings stadium funding plan was not part of the special session agenda.

The budget deal proposes to close a $1.4 billion difference between the Dayton and Republican spending plans by delaying $700 million in school payments and issuing $700 million in state debt with revenue from a tobacco industry settlement.

Economists have said those proposed budget fixes would push Minnesota’s longer term fiscal problems into the next two-year state budget and also make them slightly worse.

State parks, historic sites, rest stops and the state lottery remain closed and about 100 road construction projects suspended until the shutdown officially ends.

The state shutdown has had an impact on private businesses. It has forced two horse-racing tracks to suspend operations while more than 300 bars, restaurants and liquor stores that have expired state permits cannot acquire more alcohol until the shutdown ends.

Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Jerry Norton

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