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Senate GOP passes ‘lights on’ bill

No budget deal in sight

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Senate on Saturday approved a Republican plan for preventing a state government shutdown if the Legislature’s budget stalemate persists, throwing down a challenge to House Democrats and Gov. Tim Walz to either agree or take the blame for a shutdown when the current budget expires June 30.

“Keep Minnesota open,” Senate Republicans shouted at a news conference shortly after the 35-31 party line vote, which came as Monday night’s adjournment deadline loomed ever closer with no deal in sight. That makes a special session almost inevitable, though top legislative leaders and the governor kept searching behind closed doors for a way forward.

The top negotiators — Walz, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman — have largely maintained their “cone of silence” since Monday, so it hasn’t been clear what their remaining differences over taxes, spending and policy might be.

The Democrats have little to gain by to accepting the “lights on” proposal at this point, given that Republicans would have few incentives to keep negotiating. But the move scored political points for the GOP.

As the Senate debated, Walz showed his frustrations at a rally in the Capitol rotunda by the teachers union Education Minnesota. The Democratic governor called on the hundreds of red-shirted teachers to pressure the Senate. The former teacher suggested that some of the Republicans’ views “fit better in Mississippi and Alabama than they do in Minnesota.”

Salting a few mild expletives into his brief remarks, Walz said in a hoarse voice, “We’ve got three dozen people that need to hear our voices roar. We’ve got two days to roar. Let’s do it.”

The “lights on” bill would fund government for up to two years at current projected levels assuming autopilot growth in the budget of about $1.9 billion. It just happens to be close to the Senate GOP’s original budget proposal, which included none of the tax increases sought by Walz and House Democrats to pay for more money in education, health care, transportation and other programs.

“This proposal is about prudence, common sense and responsibility to the citizens of this state,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, of Lino Lakes, the lead author. “You can hope for the best but you should always prepare for the worst.”

But Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, of Cook, accused Republicans of bargaining in bad faith and suggested that the “lights on” bill was their real plan all along.

“What this is, is a new two-year budget for the state of Minnesota,” Bakk said of the bill, which fits on one page. He said the bare bones approach would mean foregoing increased educational opportunities, higher local property taxes, fewer correctional officers in the state’s prisons and no new broadband funding for rural Minnesota.

Sen. Carla Nelson denied that the bill is meant to be the state’s next two-year budget.

“This is the backup plan,” the Rochester Republican said. “This is the Plan B should our leaders come to some sort of stalemate.”

The conference committees negotiating the major budget bills of the session were still waiting Saturday for the marching orders they needed to finish drafting their legislation.

It has become more the rule than the exception in recent decades for the Legislature to go into overtime to finish its two-year budgets, especially when control of state government is divided, as it is now. The last time lawmakers finished a budget on time was under Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in 2013, when Democrats controlled both chambers. But the three other budgets under Dayton required special sessions, including the bitter fight of 2011, which led to a 20-day partial government shutdown.