Imagine this scenario: Under the blazing June sun, all 201 Minnesota legislators gather and sit down in folding chairs under a giant tent on the front lawn of the State Capitol. There they would debate how much money should be spent over the next two years on education, and maybe even transportation and tax cuts.
It sounds like a cruel prank, but it was a very real suggestion from a frustrated DFL Gov. Mark Dayton over the weekend, as he publicly promised for the second time in two days to veto a legislative education budget. The biggest sticking point is universal pre-kindergarten education: Lawmakers don’t fund the program in their education budget bill, but Dayton says it’s his top priority. It’s not uncommon for governors to veto bills and call lawmakers back for a special session, but this time around, the 109-year-old Capitol is in the midst of a multiyear restoration project, and the desks are coming out of the House chambers for construction immediately after lawmakers adjourn Monday night.
“It would have to be a nice day,” Dayton said of a potential outdoors special session. “They could do a roll call vote as we still do in the U.S. Senate.”
It’s a messy potential solution to a messy end of session, wherein divided government has led to pretty much nobody being happy. Instead of creating harmony, a nearly $2 billion budget surplus only widened divisions among the newly Republican-controlled House, Democrats in control of the Senate and the executive branch. Republicans wanted $2 billion in tax cuts; Democrats wanted a gas-tax increase to pay for a decade-worth of transportation fixes; Dayton wanted universal pre-kindergarten education for 4-year-olds in every school district across the state.
In the end, lawmakers cobbled together a fairly status-quo budget in round-the-clock hearings over the weekend, leaving $1 billion of the surplus unspent to deal with tax cuts and transportation later. And if Dayton has his way, those issues — plus education — might be dealt with under a tent this summer.
Legislators were up into the early hours of Monday morning passing a flurry of budget bills, a process that should continue throughout the day. And while everything is fluid until the clock strikes midnight, when the Legislature is constitutionally required to adjourn, here’s where some of the top issues of the session stand right now:
By Monday afternoon, both the Senate and House had pass an education budget bill that adds $400 million in order to increase the per-pupil funding formula 1.5 percent in 2016 and 2 percent in 2017. The bill also puts $30 million into the state’s School Readiness program, and another $30 million into Early Learning Scholarships. The House passed the bill on a 71-59 early Monday morning, and the Senate passed it 52-14 several hours later.
But it doesn’t go far enough for Dayton, who wants $150 million more added on to the target, much of that going to his proposal for voluntary, half-day pre-kindergarten education. He made that clear all weekend, promising to veto the bill on arrival and set out on a statewide tour to build support for his plan. If Dayton vetoes the bill, that could put in danger funding for the Minnesota Department of Education and its 400 employees, who process payments to school districts.
“If we go into those disaster modes, it’s the fault of the Republicans in the Minnesota House of Representatives entirely. It’s entirely their fault,” Dayton said. “I said very clearly, you know I’m governor, they want to take the last $1 billion and leave it on the bottom line and walk away and ignore my number one priority? That’s not the way this system works.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt said the governor should have spent more time this session building support for pre-kindergarten education among legislators and school boards. The bill didn’t pass out of either chamber.
“It’s his responsibility to build the ground support and the groundswell of support in the Legislature,” Daudt said. “I certainly asked the governor to reconsider and not veto the education bill that is going to put so much more new money into our classrooms and really in a way that we know school districts prefer. This is what they are asking for, money on the formula.”
What tax cuts? It was one of the main points of debate this session after Republicans proposed a $2 billion package of tax cuts, but it was also one of the first casualties of the impasse, getting wrapped up with transportation into a to-do list for a potential upcoming special session or next session. So far, Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk have left about $1 billion on the bottom line to deal with both issues, though it’s unclear if and how they would split that up in some kind of global deal.
In the end, Republicans and Democrats agreed to a so-called “lights on” transportation funding bill, meaning it kept the wheels turning on the state’s current system. Some lawmakers have quibbled with that description, however, noting that the final bill did include some new money, including $12.5 million to help cities with fewer than 5,000 people with their roads. The big lingering question: Can Democrats get Republicans to agree to a gas-tax hike in a special session or next year, when all 201 lawmakers are on the ballot?
Another one of the session’s biggest fights — whether to cut $1 billion from the health and human services budget — ended anti-climactically in a late-night conference committee. Republicans were pushing to eliminate MinnesotaCare, a subsidized health care program for 90,000 working, low-income Minnesotans. Democrats pushed back all session, and in the final bill, a task force was set up to look into the future of the program. Some users of the MinnesotaCare, however, will see their health care costs go up after a $65 million shortfall in the program was shifted to enrollees through premium and cost-sharing increases. There were also few substantive changes made to MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange, and a call for hundreds of millions in savings by cutting down on waste and fraud in the system amounted to only $25 million in the next biennium. Republicans did get one big win in the bill: $138 million directed toward the state’s nursing homes.
College students across Minnesota: Prepare for tuition increases. Dayton and legislative leaders were able to agree on spending $166 million more on higher education over the next two years, but that amount is not enough to freeze tuition at either the University of Minnesota or in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. The University of Minnesota gets about $53 million in the bill, including $30 million to boost research teams at the medical school. MnSCU gets $100 million in the bill to put toward keeping tuition costs down.
Water quality, environment
Dayton said he has some concerns about provisions passed in the agriculture and environmental budget, but he wouldn’t go into detail on Sunday. Environmental groups are worried about a proposal to abolish the Citizens’ Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The board has been around since 1967 and makes decisions on everything from permitting to regulations, and both chambers showed interest in changing the way the group operates this session. However, one of Dayton’s top priorities all session — a proposal to create buffers between the state’s waterways and farmland — did end in a compromise late Monday morning. Lawmakers put $22 million into the Legacy funding bill for buffers between farmland and public waterways, a compromise that environmental groups say is better than an eariler version, but still falls far short of what Dayton originally wanted.
A very last-minute $100 million bill is heading to the House floor and it’s unclear if it will pass. Bonding bills need a three-fifths majority to pass, meaning Republicans need to round up at least 81 votes in the House. The bill that passed out of the Ways and Means committee late Saturday night spends money to deal with avian flu, repay communities affected by last year’s floods and puts nearly $20 million in to local road and bridge projects. The biggest ticket items are more than $30 million to pay for security upgrades and unexpected expenses for the state Capitol building renovation project. Dayton pitched an $850 million bonding bill this session, supported by many others in his party. In the other chamber, Senate Democrats say at least a $200 million bonding bill is needed this session. Stay tuned.
Courts and public safety
Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill to spend $111 million more on the courts, prisons and public safety over the next two years, but the compromise deal made members of both parties unhappy. A push to restore voting rights for ex-felons on probation or parole fell on the floor in negotiations, after it became clear House Republicans wouldn’t support the measure, DFL Sen. Ron Latz said. While that measure went away, the bill includes a priority for Republicans; it legalized firearm suppressors, also known as silencers. Earlier this year, Dayton said he would veto that measure.
Lawmakers also struck a deal on the retention of data collected by law enforcement via license plate readers (LPRs). The devices track and store the movements of vehicles to try and catch criminals, but many of those vehicles belong to innocent citizens. The deal would destroy LPR data after 60 days unless it’s part of an ongoing investigation. Some advocates wanted no retention of the data at all, while an earlier Senate bill allowed for 90-day retention. No deal was reached on what to do with the data collected in body cameras worn by law enforcement.