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Enthusiasm for Dayton’s ed budget reduces DFL pressure for speedy schools repayment

The governor’s plan would invest an additional $340 million in early-education initiatives, voluntary all-day kindergarten and K-12 education.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius addressed a joint House-Senate Education Committee meeting Wednesday.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget — which would pump an additional $340 million into Minnesota’s education system — appears to have shifted the House DFL’s early priorities away from paying back money borrowed from the state’s schools, at least for some members.

Rep. Paul Marquart, who controls education finance in the House, said on the first day of session that the new DFL majority would pay back about $550 million of the school shift — preferably by the end of 2015. The symbolic House File No. 1 was a bill to that effect, and House Speaker Paul Thissen listed it as a priority then.

But Dayton’s budget plan doesn’t tackle the shift in the 2014-15 budget cycle and instead pushes it off till 2017. It does, however, invest about $340 million in new revenue in early-education initiatives, voluntary all-day kindergarten and K-12 education.

Marquart, who ran a joint House-Senate Education Committee meeting on Wednesday, received a more in-depth briefing on the education initiatives in the governor’s budget. Those include an increase in the per-pupil funding formula, special education funding to buy down the general education cross-subsidy and a new integration revenue formula, to name a few.

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He loved it.

“I really like what I see,” he said with genuine enthusiasm after the meeting.

And despite Republican concerns that the shift should be repaid now Marquart appeared to dial down his enthusiasm for paying it back immediately. He said Democrats would wait to see what message the February budget forecast brings.

“Our commitment is still to try to pay back that shift as quickly as possible, but we’re going to work with the governor, with his budget,” Marquart said. “We’ve got a lot of priorities, and so we’re going to take them one by one.”

Republicans have criticized the governor’s budget not only for ignoring the shift in the short term but also for not tackling funding inequities between urban schools and others across the state.

“My No. 1 disappointment is not paying back the shift,” said GOP Rep. Kelby Woodard, who had some pretty sharp questioning for Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

Sen. Sean Nienow, an outspoken Republican on the committee, said Republicans “sucked it up” and used the one-time measure to solve a $5 billion budget deficit. With a healthier fiscal situation ahead, now is the time to repay the obligation, he said, criticizing the Democrats for being inconsistent about the shift.

“It can’t be a bad thing last year and a good thing this year,” he said.