Part 2 of Tom Emmer’s budget plan overshadows today’s education debate

Moments before the Gubernatorial Trio was to begin today’s debate on education issues, Republican candidate Tom Emmer released the second phase of his three-part plan for dealing with the state’s budget problems.

Emmer vows that he will hold K-12 funding “harmless,” meaning he would make no reductions in what amounts to roughly 40 percent of the state budget. He would delay until 2014 starting the repayment of the $1.4 billion K-12 funding that was shifted to balance the current budget. He also hinted that he might change how the “pot of money” is spent.

Emmer and other legislators (usually conservatives) consider it unfair that urban districts receive more per pupil than suburban and outstate districts receive.

Emmer wants more education funding ‘equity’
Under his leadership, Emmer said, “there will be more equity in funding.” But he would not explain in more detail what he meant by that.

Like the first step of his budget plan, which called for a $600 million reduction in various business taxes, today’s proposal is based on the assumption that there really is not a $6 billion deficit facing the next governor and Legislature.

That’s far from a universal assumption.

Moments after the debate before metropolitan area school superintendents and board members, DFL candidate Mark Dayton did some quick calculations in his head about the Emmer plan.

Understand that Dayton, like most involved in state government, believes there is a $6 billion deficit.

Given that Emmer’s first step would increase the deficit by $600 million and that the second step would leave 40 percent of the budget “held harmless, Dayton surmises that the rest of the Emmer plan would have to cut more than 25 percent of the budget’s remaining $23 billion.

Dayton shook his head in disbelief.

An hour later, Dayton’s campaign followed up with more criticism, saying Emmer’s education numbers don’t add up: “To limit K-12 education funding to $13,300,000,000 as Rep. Emmer is proposing, instead of $15,621,575,000 as required by law, he would have to cut funding by $2,321,575,000. That is a 14.9% cut to K-12 education funding for the next biennium.”

Horner skeptical about Emmer assumptions
Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, too, showed skepticism about Emmer’s underlying assumptions.

Emmer holds firm that he’s correct in saying there’s no deficit, only an overspending state government. Last session, the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty increased spending by 7 percent per year, Emmer insists.

“You can’t bind future Legislatures,” Emmer said, indicating that he would attempt to nullify any future budget increases signed into law by the current governor.

He refused to answer any questions about “cuts” that he would propose in the budget, saying the word “cuts” is not accurate.

The Emmer camp insists that the third part of the Emmer budget plan will pull everything together in a nice, understandable package. The remainder of his budget plan will be released sometime next week and will focus heavily on cutting unpaid mandates the state passes on to local levels of government and school districts.

During the debate itself, the audience of school administrators remained stolidly neutral, a good position to take, given that they’ll have to work with whoever ends up as governor.

After the session, though, some did say that holding the K-12 budget “harmless” in effect will mean a real reduction for school districts because their costs for wages, transportation, insurance and infrastructure surely will increase.

In the debate, all three candidates did hit on popular buzzwords in education, all supporting early childhood programs and student reading proficiency by third grade.

All three candidates also pounded home on themes basic to their campaigns.

Dayton: “We’ve all learned that less money is not the answer. … It’s a mistake to look at public education through the prism of Washington, D.C.” Dayton again said that he is the only candidate who has vowed to increase the state’s contribution to per-pupil funding each year in office.

Emmer: “If money is the answer, Washington, D.C., would be the best public school system in the U.S.” He also said that the problems faced in Minnesota education are too many state mandates and Education Minnesota, the teachers union, having too much power.

Horner: “It isn’t always about government,” said Horner, who called for more innovation. “Being a centrist isn’t always about taking a little from here and a little from there.” He said it’s also about finding those things that “aren’t working.” As he frequently does, Horner called for a statewide conversation about making education a “seamless” lifelong process.

Emmer, it should be noted, seems to be getting weary of Horner’s talk of talk.

“Leadership is a vision,” he said. “If everybody’s in charge, you’ll never find a direction.”

The three did agree on a couple of points regarding education.

All opposed the idea of returning to the days of a state board of education, saying another layer of bureaucracy is not what’s needed. All agreed that more support for preschool education is vital.

Horner and Dayton agreed that school districts, on a voluntary basis, should be able to form a health insurance pool to reduce costs. Emmer, like Pawlenty, opposes the pool concept.

Fundamental differences
As always, there were the old fundamental differences.

Dayton noted that Minnesota, once a national leader in education outcomes, has slipped “nationally and globally.” He says that’s why he has been championing an increases in taxes on Minnesota’s wealthiest.

“There is a funding crisis in education,” he said.

Emmer didn’t really dispute that, but said there’s only one way to increase the tax money coming into state coffers.

“I will not increase taxes,” he said. “Increasing taxes will drag down our economy further. … We must create jobs. Next to creating jobs, our schools will be our No. 1 priority.”

Horner, of course, was in the middle. “Invest in early learning,” he said, saying that will reduce education costs as students progress through the system. But he also returned to old themes of “driving efficiency” and studying the impact of all mandates, keeping only those that are effective.

But mostly, this debate ended with great anticipation over the final phase of the Emmer budget plan.

“You’ll see it when we put it out,” Emmer said.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/10/2010 - 12:47 pm.

    Newspeak lives on in Rep. Emmer.

    He is correct when he says that no governor or legislature may bind future legislatures to a certain course of action. History, however, can.

    Over the course of my life, Minnesota and the United States have implemented many programs, social and otherwise, which channel benefits of one sort or another to our citizens and residents. I’ll leave the chicken or the egg aspects of that situation to others to address, but the fact is that our systems are in place and most of us are dependent upon them to a greater or lesser degree, individually or in regard to our extendd families.

    The reality is that a budget such as is implied by Rep. Emmer’s comments over the past year is impossible to attain without deep cuts in programs that Minnesotans have repeatedly indicated they want and need or shifting the costs of those programs to local government.

    Governor Pawlenty has tried both approaches over the past 8 years and, in doing so, has used virtually all of the available slack, if not more than that in some areas. Witness his recent,grudging acceptance of federal funds and the increases in local government taxes which reflect the declining state role in education and reductions in LGA.

    Rep. Emmer is correct in saying that there is a deficit only if we continue to fund the same things at the same levels. But it is dishonest to take that position and not tell Minnesotans what he wants to take off the table.

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/10/2010 - 12:51 pm.

    Regarding education aid:

    Kids aren’t fungible. Consequently, districts’ needs are not the same. While they are a factort, one cannot simply look to per student rates to determine whether funding is “equitable”. If available funds mean that one district’s students do well while another’s do not, there is no equity.

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/10/2010 - 01:06 pm.

    “Emmer holds firm that he’s correct in saying there’s no deficit, only an overspending state government.”

    And the moon is made of green cheese. I’m still stunned that this guy made it past the first round of the nomination process.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/10/2010 - 01:41 pm.

    Lets all move beyond the semantic games of “cuts”, “deficits”, and “overspending”. Too much effing time has been wasted in battles over these words, enabling Emmer in particular to evade specifics.

    Insist that each candidate provide approximate dollar amounts for each major category of governmental spending. Then have the candidate provide a dollar amount for each major category of revenue.

    After all, these are the same numbers they will have to present to the legislature in January, not some tortured evasion related to semantics.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/10/2010 - 01:41 pm.

    So Emmer is perpetuating Pawlenty’s cut in public education funding.
    When you don’t make a payment when you are obligated to make it, that’s not paying your bills. School districts have to pay their bills now, not in 2014, which in many cases will mean more borrowing and paying interest (unless Emmer is proposing that class sizes be increased to 40).

  6. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/10/2010 - 02:14 pm.

    It looks to me that Mr. Emmer wants to hold back the growth of “Big Education” to reasonable growth rates (along with all government).

    He must NOT be receiving loads of campaign cash from big education, the largest special interest group in the state.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/10/2010 - 02:34 pm.

    As a service, allow me to break Emmer’s position down to something the scary smart, reality based community will understand.

    If you have a dollar, and you buy a two dollar latte, you’ve created $1 of debt.

    If you have a dollar, and you get a cup of coffee from the office for $.50, you won’t get whipped cream, but you still have half a dollar to fuel your Prius on the way home.

    And now, maybe someone could return the favor.

    Dayton says “Emmer is proposing, instead of $15,621,575,000 as required by law…”

    What law sets $15,621,575,000 as the minimum school funding?

  8. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/10/2010 - 02:39 pm.

    Where is Tom Swift to explain that our calculators are all broken and we shouldn’t believe our lying eyes?

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/10/2010 - 03:01 pm.

    New direction, this is a new direction. New direction, this is a new direction. New direction…

  10. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 09/10/2010 - 03:12 pm.

    Darn those “Big Education” people (see #6), like the teachers at my local school hop with their BMWs whisking them off to their private jets for some fabulous weekend getaway. I’m sure that’s why they lobby for more funds, so they can keep up their luxurious lives; it’s certainly not to try keep my son’s kindergarden class under 30 kids. Of course, I’ve never seen any evidence of these high-end items, but I’m sure they exist, because they couldn’t possibly be proposing more money for things like more hiring more staff, heating, bussing, etc.

  11. Submitted by Rich Crose on 09/10/2010 - 04:10 pm.

    We need better educated kids because they will need higher thinking to solve the mess this generation is leaving them.

    The part of the education budget they need to beef up is the course on compassion and tolerance. It seems like no one in the previous classes learned anything.

  12. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 09/10/2010 - 04:29 pm.

    I believe that the jig is pretty much up for Emmer here. Look on the strib web site at the comments on the story there. People are fed up with this baloney.

    I think Mr. Rovick (#4)is spot on with his suggestion.

    We know that Emmer will never do this, but it is possible that Horner and Dayton may, because they are not completely out of their league – as Emmer clearly is.

    Both Horner and Dayton have the best interests of the state in mind, although their solutions differ. I support Dayton but must admit that many economists believe that the Horner approach is better. I think we should basically ignore Emmer and ask that Dayton and Horner duke it out so that we can make a choice.

    Mr. Horner and Dayton, I ask you to please just ignore Emmer and have a few one on ones.

  13. Submitted by John Autey on 09/10/2010 - 04:40 pm.

    Here about how much a Republican cares about Public Education is lot like listening to how much a lion cares about an antelope.

  14. Submitted by David Willard on 09/10/2010 - 06:58 pm.

    Wow, Bill, the Strib website comments are similar to the Minnpost comments?? On Emmer? That means I can’t vote for Emmer! He’s stoopid! Hmmm!

  15. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/11/2010 - 09:46 am.

    No, David, Emmer is not ‘stoopid’ (and yes I suspect that you were being sarcastic — at least I hope so).
    He’s just cynical enough to believe that a plurality of voters are greedy and ignorant (much worse that stupid) enough to want to believe him when he tells them that they can get something for nothing.
    That’s why he’s vague about cuts; people want to believe that he’ll cut things that affect other people, not them.

  16. Submitted by Howard Miller on 09/11/2010 - 12:24 pm.

    When i moved to Minnesota in 1980, it was in large part because of our national leadership in educational quality.

    Since then we have consistently backed off of our commitment to higher education, played shell games between the state and county on where school revenues come from, and lagged behind in our responses to the social and technological changes that have made education more challenging and expensive.

    If we take an approach that emphasizes only state budget cuts, without considering how importatn some of the programs are that are funded through state taxes, we may yet achieve that conservative dream of shrinking government so much, it can be drowned in Grover Norquist’s bath tub.

    But who will want to live in the state, as we race down to Mississippi’s quality of life and even lower?

  17. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/11/2010 - 07:45 pm.

    You have to admire his cajones though: his proposal for balancing the budget assumes first that massive tax cuts will have no impact on revenue. Optimism like that is rare indeed.

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