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Tentative agreement

A pair of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, with chips on the side, may have been just what the budget doctor ordered.

That was the menu for a secret 45-minute Monday lunch at St. Cloud's Jules Bistro between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker. Their meeting may have laid the groundwork for a state budget deal framework announced Thursday evening.

"We talked about things that he could offer that we (Republicans) would not just immediately reject," the northern Minnesota lawmaker said in an interview.

Howes said he could not take credit for the offer Dayton made on Thursday, which was based on a June 30 GOP offer, but the veteran lawmaker would be a key if it moves forward.

Howes is chairman of the House committee that funds public works construction projects, such as fixing state building roofs and building flood-protection structures. So he and Dayton spend time over the ham and cheese talking bonding, the method of funding construction projects.

Howes has kept a bonding bill handy since the beginning of the legislative session and altered it in recent days in an attempt to satisfy Dayton.

"I took some things out, reduced some things, added some things," Howes said. "It still is basically his bill."

Originally, Dayton proposed about $500 million in projects.

In discussing the budget framework, Dayton and Republican leaders left it unclear whether a bonding bill was a definite part of the agreement.

"I'm hoping we can work out a bonding bill," Dayton said, adding that the public works bill is not essential for the overall budget agreement to go forward.

The bill will have funding for flood-prevention efforts statewide, but especially in the Red River Valley. However, Howes said, as it stands now it does not contain tornado relief for Wadena or Minneapolis.

"The people of Minnesota won today," Dayton said, wearing a frown, adding that "no one is going to be happy with this."

Added Zellers: "No one of us got exactly all of what we wanted."

The basis of the June 30 GOP offer was increasing spending $1.4 billion in the next two years. Half would come from delaying state payments to schools, a tactic legislators and governors have used before. The other half of the new revenue would be borrowing against Minnesota's future payments from a lawsuit the state won against big tobacco companies.

In a letter to Zellers and Koch, Dayton said that if they accepted his offer, "my commissioners, staff and I are available to meet around the clock with you, your members and your staff to complete it."

Dayton said all nine remaining budget bills would have to be completed, and his commissions sign off on them, before he calls legislators back to work. Only a governor can call a special legislative session.

The session is needed because before the Legislature adjourned on May 23, only a bill funding agriculture programs was passed and signed. Dayton vetoed other Republican-written budget bills on May 24.

The argument has been about how much the state should spend. Dayton originally wanted to spend $37 billion in the next two years, but lowered that to $35.8 billion. Republicans said they would not spend more than $34 billion, the most in state history.

Dayton wanted to increase income taxes on the state's top earners to spend more money than Republicans wanted.