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Three days to shutdown: secret talks and public sparring

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Three days remain before a potential state government shutdown and negotiators still are saying little about budget talks while their aides are arguing about whether letters are political.

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Gov. Mark Dayton led fellow Democrats into a Capitol negotiation session today with Republican legislative leaders in an attempt to avoid a shutdown, which would come if there is no budget for the two years beginning Friday.

While Republicans going into the talks said they were close in many areas of the budget, Dayton said that has yet to be seen.

Nine people were in the negotiations, moved to a Senate area of the Capitol this week from the House's State Office Building complex over the weekend. Earlier talks were in Dayton's office.

Overall, those in the talks remained tight-lipped about what was happening. They called it a "cone of silence" and "vow of silence," an effort to keep public rhetoric at a minimum.

The silent treatment includes most members of the Legislature, who spokesmen said were not being told details of the negotiations.

While nine people are in the main negotiations, committee chairmen and others are working on specific details. For instance, legislators who deal with health and human services budgets met Monday and today.

Negotiators said they had good talks this morning, and will return to work at 2 p.m. However, they will break at 3:30 p.m., perhaps for the day, for a memorial service for Sen. Linda Scheid of Brooklyn Park, who died earlier this month.

Like the last several days, no one in the negotiations gave any indication about whether enough progress was being made to avoid a shutdown.

Dayton canceled a noon speech to work on the budget, his spokeswoman said.

Communications aides kept the dialog going, but the talk turned from the budget to whether letters sent by GOP leaders and Dayton's commissioners are political.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, on Monday sent a email to state employees endorsing a St. Paul Pioneer Press editorial saying that Dayton's budget negotiation strategy was one of taking hostages.

Some state workers immediately called the letter political and inappropriate.

Now, Dayton commissioners are coming under fire for sending letters considered one-sided.

A letter from Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, which Republicans released today, chastised Public Safety Commissioner Ramona Dohman for writing a letter to her employees that was "one-sided and could be interpreted as promoting a political position," Nobles wrote.

Dohman's letter said Dayton's position was "reasonable" while pointing out "negative impacts" of the Republican budget.

Nobles said the letter appears to have violated state policy that forbids those in the executive branch using the state email system for political purposes.

Republicans say several Dayton commissioners have written similar letters.

Twitter this morning was full of comments about the dust-up, more so than the budget talks themselves.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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