- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Minnesota lawmakers returned from a weeklong break Tuesday ready to resume work on finalizing a new budget, but without a clear path for how legislative leaders will tackle the massive list of differences between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Dayton - or when they’ll even start meeting.

The Legislature and Democratic governor have five weeks to strike a deal on a new, two-year budget. But before they begin that critical bargaining period over tens of billions of dollars in government spending, the trio of legislative leaders has to haggle over how and when they’ll negotiate. And no one is on the same page.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Tuesday he wants to meet with Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt later this week to start hashing out a deal on the broad numbers that will determine how much money goes to public schools, health care services and other programs. Daudt said the governor should join groups of lawmakers from the House and Senate starting that work later this week. And Dayton the pair in a letter this week he plans to wait until the House and Senate have ironed out their own differences before joining them.

“Now is where the real negotiations take place,” Gazelka said.

Foreseeing a tough road to final agreement after a 2011 deadlock between legislative Republicans and Dayton triggered a government shutdown, lawmakers accelerated their budget timeline this year give themselves a bigger window to negotiate with the governor. And even with a $1.65 billion budget surplus, there is no shortage of divides to tackle.

The two sides start off roughly $1 billion apart - Dayton has proposed a roughly $46 billion budget while Republicans came in lower, making big cuts to state agencies - with some even greater philosophical differences.

While Dayton has asked for an extra $175 million to expand a new preschool program, the Senate’s budget would keep current funding level while House Republicans are moving to zero out funding for the program entirely. Both chambers have put measures in budget bills that would delay Dayton’s marquee water quality initiative requiring buffers between cropland and public waterways - a provision Dayton has said would trigger a veto. He also promised to veto a House budget bill would allow Canadian energy company Enbridge to bypass Minnesota regulators and build a replacement for an aging pipeline.

Dayton’s commissioners have sent a laundry list of objections about the GOP-backed budget to legislative leaders. Daudt bristled at those letters, calling them political posturing. He said he thinks the two sides already agree on “80 or 90 percent” of the funding proposals.

“We should spend some time talking about the areas where we do agree and how we can build and expound on those areas instead of just kind of drawing lines in the sand,” Daudt said. “I just don’t consider that being fully engaged in the process.”

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