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Minnesota shutdown drags on

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Talks between Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) and Republican lawmakers Tuesday failed to reopen the state government, shut down five days ago because of wrangling over how to close a $5 billion budget gap.

In bargaining sessions that closely mirror the political altercations in Washington, Dayton continued to press to raise income taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents, a plan Republican have repeatedly rejected in favor of spending cuts and delaying some payments.

The government shutdown has thrown thousands of state employees out of work with no idea when they might return. Construction projects have been stalled. And millions of dollars in state revenues will likely be lost: Minnesota is losing an estimated $200,000 a day from the closure of state parks alone.

The crisis is gaining attention beyond Minnesota’s borders.

Former Democratic U.S. senator Walter Mondale and former Republican governor Arne Carlson convened a bipartisan group of former legislators and budget officials Tuesday to come up with a budget proposal.

“Our fear is large national interest groups will cause a freezing of attitudes, with both sides digging in, making it difficult to compromise,” Carlson said during a news conference at the State Capitol. “We need a plan that is slightly distasteful to both sides.”

The group has Dayton’s support.

Republicans are skeptical of the outside commission, arguing that only current lawmakers can get themselves out of this mess.

“This looks to be a group that was put together by the governor, so I expect it’s going to have that kind of flavor when it comes to balancing the budget,” said state Sen. Geoff Michel (R), the deputy majority leader. “We’ve got a job to do, and I don’t believe we’ll be able to outsource it.”

GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty (R) took a shot at the group and began running an ad this week in Iowa claiming he won the last budget showdown in 2005 when he was governor of Minnesota.

“Walter Mondale ran for president against Ronald Reagan on a platform that called for higher taxes,” Pawlenty said in a statement. “Arne Carlson supported John Kerry, Barack Obama and other Democrats. It should surprise no one that they both support more spending and higher taxes in Minnesota.”

The shutdown in 2005 lasted eight days. Pawlenty and a Democratic-controlled legislature agreed to new cigarette fees to solve the impasse.

Pawlenty said a few days ago that he wished he had held out longer: “I think we would’ve gotten a better deal had we allowed that to continue for a while.”

Despite the lack of progress Tuesday, Dayton’s spokeswoman described the hour-long meeting of the governor, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers as “constructive.” The spokeswoman said Dayton would meet with the Republican leaders again Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Koch said a Republican offer to delay payments to schools and sell off tobacco bonds is off the table for now. Together, the two sides are considering other sources of revenue, and working groups focused on health care and education spending will meet over the next two days.

“We proposed once again to him that we do a lights-on bill” to fund the government while legislators hammer out a deal, Koch said. “We proposed that we finish up” the areas of the budget on which Republicans and Democrats agree.

The governor still opposes that approach, arguing that an overarching agreement must be struck.

A judge determines what services continue during a shutdown, and Dayton sent him a request Tuesday asking that the list be expanded to include special-education aid, addiction and mental health services, services for people with HIV and victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes. The judge has not responded. He has been holding hearings with individual social services groups that are waiting on inspections, licenses and background checks. Food banks already have been granted an exception.

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