DFL leaders outlined their broad priorities for this legislative session on Wednesday — a day after lawmakers returned to St. Paul — but provided little in the way of detail.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and House Speaker Paul Thissen promised that lawmakers would get their work done on time but not necessarily without disagreements.
The legislative leaders stressed that the DFL caucuses wouldn’t always agree among themselves — or with Republicans.
Otherwise, they spoke in broad terms about increasing economic prosperity for the middle class and working toward an honest, structurally balanced budget that continues into the future. For now, though, it’s too early to say how they’ll get there.
Gov. Mark Dayton will release his budget proposal Jan. 22, and DFL leaders said tax reform will play into the budgeting process.
“Simple stuff — nothing groundbreaking” is how Thissen described DFLers’ work this session to eliminate a projected $1.1 billion deficit that actually adds up, they say, to a $4 billion problem when all factors are considered.
On Tuesday, the new House speaker briefly outlined his other priorities, which include paying back $550 million of the funds the government borrowed from schools, implementing a state-based health insurance exchange and holding down property taxes.
Bakk and his Senate companions will announce their priorities Thursday — in the form of the first bills introduced this biennium.
Health care-oriented lawmakers planned to outline the insurance exchange legislation Wednesday afternoon.
Two areas that lawmakers have consistently said would get increased attention this session are higher education and early-education initiatives. In terms of early education, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Katie Sieben said Democrats would look to work on the state’s rating system, provide more grants and expand all-day kindergarten options.
Higher education faces a tougher road, especially the University of Minnesota, which was recently the focus of an unfavorable article in the Wall Street Journal related to ballooning administrative costs. DFL leaders were quick to exonerate new U President Eric Kaler, who responded to the article here.
Bakk said he had written a letter to Kaler asking for a report on the University’s administrative employees in March. Rep. Alice Hausman, chairwoman of the House bonding committee, has said that the U’s full capital project request would not be included in a potential borrowing bill.
Beyond those plans, Thissen and Bakk were reluctant to discuss specific budget areas targeted for cuts or possible tax changes, including whether they would move forward with an income tax hike on Minnesota’s highest earners.
Thissen said those positions would become clearer as the Legislature does its work, although Bakk did confirm that there would be unspecified tax increases.
“We are going to pass a budget that has new revenue in it,” he said, stressing that he hopes to have the budget’s structural problems fully solved by 2017.
In a change of mood from Tuesday’s first-day collegiality, Bakk pushed back against what he considers unfair Republican claims about the $5 billion budget deficit legislators faced for the current biennium. While DFLers have said they’re happy to work with the GOP, the Senate leader said he wanted to set the record straight.
“A word of caution to the Republicans that are lamenting their great work of the last two years: Cool your jets. We don’t think that you were all that successful,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, responding to the criticisms on Wednesday, said Minnesotans presented with the facts would understand that Republicans left the state better off than when they took control two years ago.
“We think we left the state in great shape,” he said. “I would argue that we are on a course to a structurally balanced budget.”