Dan Sparks: Budget bills pass Senate; now up to House

Published 9:00 am Sunday, April 16, 2017

Senate Report by Dan Sparks

Senators and staff put in plenty of long hours in the two weeks leading up to the start of Easter/Passover break, which began April 9. The Senate dedicated time to passing all major budget bills in late March and early April. The discussions were at times contentious and floor debates in one case went until 3 a.m. on a bill many DFL senators found particularly egregious.

The Senate took up the $300 million education bill as one of its last major debates. The bill falls short of meeting the needs of Minnesota students, at a time when the state is experiencing a time of prosperity with a projected $1.6 billion surplus. I joined the majority of my DFL colleagues in voting against the bill, not only due to the size of the bill — which is $400 million less than Gov. Dayton’s $709 million education proposal — but also the total lack of new funding for early education. The low target of $300 million in this bill will force schools to make the unenviable decision: seek to increase local levies or cut programs and/or staff.

Dan Sparks

Email newsletter signup

The Senate also dedicated a solid seven hours to debating the $900 million tax bill — a piece of legislation that provides tax relief for businesses, farmers and college graduates paying off student loans. I am particularly in favor of the tax provision that provides a 40 percent tax credit on property taxes paid to help fund local school bond referendums. The change in the law comes as a response to rising agricultural property taxes that farmers have said are partly due to local levy obligations.

The health and human services bill was met with frustration by many of my colleagues, and I joined them in voting against the bill, which cuts $335 million from health and human services and masks the severity of this cut through shifts and gimmicks at a time of surplus. Republicans are using one-time money for ongoing programs and shifting payments out into the future, making these cuts even more expensive in the future. This sets a dangerous precedent that will cause further pain in the future.

The higher education budget bill was likewise underwhelming. This bill will short-change students by not adequately funding core academic programs to maintain educational quality at campuses across the state. The Senate higher education bill is one-third the size of what Gov. Dayton recommended.

A particularly contentious floor debate took place after a long day of committee hearings, with the session beginning at 7 p.m. Three major budget bills received a vote that night: jobs, state government and environment. I voted in favor of the jobs bill, which includes money for broadband and workforce housing — both items that are important to our region.

Debate on the state government bill included a surprise amendment that passed with bipartisan support that works to protect Minnesotans’ online privacy rights. It was a timely amendment in reaction to Congress repealing online privacy rights and allowing Americans’ information to be sold to the highest bidder.

The environment bill was particularly underfunded, as the committee was given a negative $40 million target, leaving an $80 million difference between the governor’s bill and the Senate bill. I voted against this bill because it needs a lot of work, and rolls back important provisions that protect Minnesota lakes and streams.

The House and Senate agreement on reinsurance — a bill that spends $543 million to temporarily fix the health insurance individual market was also passed, despite significant opposition to the expensive one-time fix that doesn’t guarantee lower health insurance premiums. The governor allowed it to become law without his signature. While I believe reinsurance could work, if the bill was written the right way, I believe this bill is simply a handout to insurance companies without holding them accountable.

The Senate also reconsidered the REAL ID bill, several weeks after it failed on the Senate floor due to unnecessary, controversial immigration language. Minnesotans concerned about their ability to board an airplane next year can rest easy — the REAL ID bill passed with bipartisan support. The final bill will be worked out in a conference committee.

Senators also voted on and approved a $400 million transportation bill. While the money invested is not nearly enough, it is an acknowledgement of the great need for additional funding for our hundreds of thousands of miles of highway across the state. I will continue advocating for greater long-term investment in transportation.

When senators return to the capitol in mid-April, conference committee work will begin to reconcile differences between the House and Senate language. While the House and Senate are both controlled by Republicans, Gov. Dayton does hold veto power. I am hopeful the conference committees will work with the governor’s staff to find bipartisan solutions for all Minnesotans.

Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, is the District 27 senator.