Greeting Friends and Neighbors,
The 89th Legislature's 2015 regular session has adjourned with one of the most bipartisan budgets put forth in many years by the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House, but Gov. Mark Dayton has since vetoed three bills related to our state's next FY 2016-17 biennial budget. Since these three bills account for nearly half of the general funds budget, this means a special session will likely be in order.
The three bills the governor vetoed are related to K-12 education, jobs/energy/natural resources and agriculture/environment. K-12 education is the single largest spending item in our state budget and this bill, at more than $17 billion, has received the most attention among those Dayton vetoed.
The K-12 bill received significant bipartisan support in passing the Legislature (123-73 overall). It provides $400 million in new funding for K-12 education, 72 percent of which goes directly onto the per-pupil formula. The funding translates to increases of 1.5 percent in 2016 and 2 percent in 2017, dedicating more dollars per pupil than Dayton proposed in his own budget.
The governor has stated that he has vetoed the Legislature's K-12 package mainly because it does not provide funding for universal pre-Kindergarten. The governor’s number one issue priority has metamorphosed from transportation at the beginning of the session to universal pre-K in recent months. The proposal for universal pre-K never passed out of the Republican House or the DFL Senate, nor did the pre-K issue survive a conference committee as part of the final bipartisan omnibus education bill.
Universal pre-K also has received a cool reception from parents, school districts and many others for a variety of reasons. There are approximately 75,000 4-year-olds in Minnesota and it is estimated that nearly 70 percent of these same 4-year-olds already are enrolled in an early learning program selected by their parents which suits the specific needs of their children. Furthermore, approximately 80 percent of parents of these same children are in the workforce and need a program that is compatible with their work schedule. The governor’s proposal is for a universal public half day. Many believe that his proposal misdirects limited resources toward universal rather than towards children at highest risk.
The current bipartisanly proposed legislation additionally funded $60 million into the early learning pre-K scholarship program which funds were available for participation in both private and public early learning programs. The governor is now proposing resources directed toward public early learning and walks away from his own support for the past several years of investments in developing quality early learning programs statewide in both private sector and school based which were rated by the 4-star Parent Aware rating system developed in cooperation with the Legislature.
The governor’s proposal and request did not fully fund his early learning initiative and the additional cost is estimated to bring the total cost in excess of $917 million per biennium. However, not included in the total costs are ancillary costs at the local level. Schools have indicated they do not have enough classrooms to accommodate these students and could face other challenges pertaining to food service, staffing and transportation. This unfunded mandate could likely burden local property tax payers as school districts seek additional resources necessary to fully fund the initiative. Many also consider the wisdom in adding a 14th grade when difficulties in equitably funding the existing 13 grades of public education. Some parents have expressed concern about government overreach into parental decisions about their toddlers and are concerned about the additional costs a universal pre-K program would bring.
Instead of taking the universal approach, the Legislature's proposal provides more than $60 million in pre-K programs based on targeting the students in greatest need and at risk to help us close the achievement gap.
This is not a question about whether we want to make early-learning programs available for our children. We all want what is best for our kids. The question is whether universal pre-K in our public school system is the best way provide or to achieve results. It is difficult to see a situation where the governor is able to rally broad support between now and the coming weeks when a special session is likely to take place. The governor’s recent public remark that “Republicans hate public schools” is not only far off base but is counterproductive to the ongoing negotiations to resolve the broad bi-partisan budget issues in its entirety.
Notable provisions in the jobs/energy/natural resources bill ($381 million) Dayton vetoed would expand broadband access in Greater Minnesota, increase funding for internships and job-training grants and address workforce housing shortages.
A top item in the agriculture/environment bill ($314 million) provides $16.5 million to the Department of Agriculture and Board of Animal Health in order to combat the avian influenza outbreak that has significantly damaged our state's poultry industry.
Sadly, the Senate refused to pass a tax bill or a transportation bill. The House version of these two bills provided many outstanding provisions which would have funded roads and bridges with existing revenue streams rather than creating a new regressive gas tax, provided financial assistance to towns and cities under 5,000 population and provide much needed property tax reform by providing a $500,000 exclusion to the state general levy to small business owners all across Minnesota and also to all seasonal-recreational property owners.
Negotiations will continue in an attempt to find agreement on these areas. Only the governor can call a special session and only the Legislature can end it. I will provide more details as they become available. As always, your input on these and other subjects is welcome.
Rep. Jerry Hertaus