Lawmakers go public with budget agreements

Published 9:00 am Sunday, June 7, 2015

ST. PAUL — Details surfaced Friday about the budget plans Minnesota lawmakers will vote on during an upcoming special session, including how $525 million in new school money will be parceled out.

The education plan negotiated in private but posted publicly ahead of an afternoon committee hearing showed schools are in line for a sizable increase in per-pupil allowances. Basic aid will rise from $5,831 per student now to $5,948 next school year and $6,067 the year after. That represents back-to-back 2 percent increases.

Early childhood education programs will receive about $95 million more in total over the next two years, with added preschool scholarships accounting for half.

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The bill still requires legislative approval and a signature by Gov. Mark Dayton. The Democratic governor has yet to call a special session, but lawmakers face a July 1 deadline for action to avoid state service disruptions and the layoff of thousands of state workers.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt’s hopes for a Saturday special session were quashed by disagreement over how to deal with a new law altering powers of the state auditor, a change Dayton wants rolled back or at least delayed for a year to 2017. That law, signed by Dayton in late May, gives counties new ability to hire private firms for financial audits now done by the state auditor. Democratic Auditor Rebecca Otto contends it would weaken oversight of taxpayer dollars, but backers say it will save counties money and get them results quicker.

“I don’t expect House Republicans to like this compromise any more than I do,” Dayton said in a written statement. “I ask them to agree to it, while not agreeing with it, to conclude the people’s business.”

Daudt brushed off Dayton’s offer for a one-year delay as not serious and stressed that lawmakers already have time to study the issue and reconsider next year.

“If the governor doesn’t choose to set that to the side … 9,400 Minnesotans are going to have uncertainty about their jobs and they may lose them on July 1,” the speaker said.

The relatively small item is one of few remaining disputes holding up bigger legislation, such as the $17.2 billion education bill, that emerged after Dayton and Daudt worked in private for more than a week to narrow their list of disagreements.

Besides money, the measure gives school districts a chance to start the next academic year sooner. It would let districts resume classes on Sept. 1 for the coming year only. Current law requires most public schools to wait until after Labor Day to get started. But Labor Day is late this year, Sept. 7. School districts with four-day weeks would also be allowed to continue through the 2019-2020 school year.

A revamped budget for agricultural and environmental programs provided some comfort to Democrats who, like Dayton, took issue with the original regulatory change allowing companies that self-report pollution violations to escape penalization. The bill unveiled Friday waives penalties once companies work with the state to remedy their infraction.

Despite some improvements, Steven Morse with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership said it didn’t return substantially better after the governor’s veto, noting it still abolishes a citizen oversight board at the state’s pollution control agency.

“This bill is a step backward for Minnesota,” he told lawmakers.

A public works borrowing bill that includes $373 million in construction projects got its first public airing. It includes money to finish the Capitol renovation, undertake a massive highway rerouting project on the Iron Range and flooding disaster relief. Such bills require a three-fifths supermajority to pass, so it will need approval from minority Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Several House Democrats complained that the bonding bill didn’t go far enough, saying that the state should have capitalized on low interest rates by adding more projects.

“But we also have to have something that will pass,” Sen. Leroy Stumpf, a Plummer Democrat who helped assemble the bill, reminded lawmakers.