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

He vows to hold K-12 funding “harmless,” meaning no reductions in what amounts to roughly 40 percent of the state budget.

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.