Back and forth the reporter and the House Speaker went.
“Will abortion bills come to the floor during the budget process?” the reporter asked.
“We’re focusing on the budget,” Speaker Kurt Zellers said.
“Does that mean abortion bills [that Zellers has co-sponsored] won’t come to the floor during the budget process?’’
“We’re focusing on the budget,” Zellers said.
The reporter was not impressed. She kept asking if two abortion bills in the Republican hopper will make an appearance while legislative Republicans are finalizing their all-cuts budget.
“If you keep asking about abortion,” Zellers said, “I’ll keep answering, ‘We’re focused on the budget.’ ”
“But I can’t say, definitively, what we’ll deal with.”
That’s a big but.
As the process moves closer to the Republicans’ self-imposed March 25 deadline of having all committee budget bills completed, the questions are getting more and more pointed:
• Is this an anti-city session?
• Is there time for public input in the next few days on huge policy-budget issues?
• Is much-talked-about reform really going to be a part of this budget package?
Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch danced as best they could this morning.
Local aid, integration funds targeted
Take the anti-city questions. Republicans, who have targeted Local Government Aid as a way to cut into the state’s $5 billion deficit, appear to be dancing around this issue by trying to protect “their territories” by zeroing out aid to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth in longer-term budgets, while preserving aid for rural communities, and, inexplicably, the city of Rochester, which has enjoyed huge growth and relative prosperity in the last decade.
Not surprisingly, big-city mayors have balked at this proposal.
Isn’t this anti-city?
“No,” Zellers said. He went on to say that LGA, formed 30 years ago, was meant to help communities with low tax bases provide basic services.
So how is it that booming Rochester is exempted from the big cuts and less-prosperous Duluth is not?
“I haven’t seen the bill yet,” said Zellers.
There are other pieces of legislation that would seem to be particularly hurtful to the cities coming down the legislative highway. A big one would come out of the House Education Committee that would eliminate integration funding from the amount paid, on a per-pupil basis, to the school districts. Obviously, the big losers in this proposal would be the two most diverse districts, Minneapolis and St. Paul.
So is this not anti-city?
Koch said that it’s not. School districts, such as Rockford, also receive the addition integration funding she said.
“Integration money goes statewide,” Koch said. “It doesn’t affect just the cities.”
Then, she turned to the Republican mantra about school funding.
“A kid is a kid is a kid” goes the mantra. And it means that there should be equitable funding for school districts across the state. This would be a huge shift in policy.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, who heads the House Education Committee, said that it’s clear by the huge testing disparities between minority kids and white kids that the integration funds aren’t having an impact.
Earlier this week, he noted that Minnesota kids of color lag such states as Alabama in terms of performance.
“We expect Minnesota to lose to Alabama in football, not reading,” Garofalo said.
His answer about what to do with integration funds is expected to be: Disperse those dollars across the state.
Sen. Terrri Bonoff, a Senate minority leader, said this morning that she agrees with Garofalo that it’s clear the funds aren’t working. But, she said, the discussion shouldn’t be about dumping the aid from the basic funding. Rather, she said, it should be about using those dollars more effectively.
But so far that discussion has not been held.
Too fast a track?
Which brings up the next point: DFLers say that the Republican process, which involves having their budget pieces in place by midnight next Friday, is so fast-track that there’s no time for meaningful committee hearings.
Republican leaders, rightfully, have a field day with this complaint.
“It’s such an interesting criticism,” said Koch. “At first, they [DFLers] were saying, ‘Where’s your budget? Where’s your budget?’ Now they’re saying, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re moving too fast.’ ”
What of reform? Especially in the House, “reform” has been an oft-repeated refrain. It’s not heard so often in the Senate.
This morning the two leaders, who usually are in lockstep, seemed to offer different views of the impact that reform efforts will have on this session.
Koch said many reform issues will be put off until next year, when legislators have time to analyze them. This session is “focused on the budget.”
She did say, however, that “reform” is as big an issue with her colleagues as it is with Republicans in the House.
“They have Rep. [Keith] Downey,’’ said Koch. “He’s a reform machine.”
Zellers laughed at that comment.
“He shares his ideas with everybody,” he said.
At that point, Koch seemed to back off her suggestion that reform will be an issue for next session.
“You’ll see reform as part of our budget,” she said.
Zellers said reform will be a part of the House budget proposals. Earlier in the week, he noted that reform was a large part of what helped Republicans sweep into the majority.
But the closer the Republicans get to their own budget deadlines, the less savings they seem to be promising in those reforms.
“We’re very optimistic about some of the reforms,” Zellers said.
How much will those reforms amount to on the bottom line?
“Small savings in the short run,” he said, “but big savings down the line.”
“Down the line” is coming fast. Republicans are working hard, holding committee meetings through this weekend, as they put together proposals that face a bleak future when they arrive on the governor’s desk.
But, one more time, will other controversial, issues pop up on the floors of the House or Senate in the next few weeks?
They’re focused on the budget, the two leaders said.
But Zellers added a “but.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.