ST. PAUL – The Minnesota Legislature passed a new two-year state budget for 2016-17 and adjourned just before midnight Monday.
Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls pointed to increased funding for nursing homes and K-12 education as positive developments this year. On the other hand, he said tax relief and transportation funding are items which fell victim to the insistence of Gov. Mark Dayton and the Senate to pass a historic gas-tax increase.
"It really seems like that gas-tax proposal held up a lot of other good proposals from the House," Nornes said. "That is too bad, because the public widely opposes raising the gas tax, especially at a time we have a $2 billion surplus. The House voted 132-0 against it. That was an achievement in itself, preventing at least another 16 cents per gallon from being added at the pump."
Nornes said the Senate and Dayton refused to accept the House's alternative to a gas-tax increase, a package that would have put $7 billion toward roads and bridges over the next 10 years. The result is passage of a scaled-down two-year plan which includes $12.5 million in road funding for towns with populations under 5,000 residents.
"We all agree more needs to be done to improve our roads and bridges," Nornes said. "But the fact remains people do not want gas taxes increased. The governor and the Senate need to come to grips with that if we are going to make progress in 2016. I remain optimistic the House's plan will receive more attention next year."
Nornes said a $138 million funding increase for nursing homes was a highlight of the 2015 session, along with providing K-12 school districts with $400 million in new funding, 72 percent of which goes directly onto the per pupil formula. At 1.5 percent in 2016 and 2 percent in 2017, the education budget dedicates more per pupil than Dayton proposed in his own budget. It also invests more than $60 million in proven early-learning programs to help close the achievement gap. The agreement the House and Senate met does not include funding for universal pre-K.
A bill Nornes authored as chairman of the Higher Education Committee with $3 billion in General Fund appropriations – a $166 million increase – for colleges and universities also passed through the Legislature. This includes $1.3 billion to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, an increase of $101 million over the latest forecast in February. In the package is a tuition freeze in 2016 and a 1-percent reduction in 2017 for two-year schools. The bill also provides a tuition freeze in 2017 for four-year schools.
"We can be pleased with those items," Nornes said. "It's just too bad the Senate and the governor stood in the way of providing almost $2 billion in tax relief to middle-class families, seniors and veterans. Again, it is my hope we can pick up those discussions next year."