It’s number-crunch time for the House Ways and Means Committee, whose members must adopt a budget resolution bill by March 24.
On Monday, the chair, Rep. Jim Knoblach (R-St. Cloud), steered the committee through a crammed agenda, with presentations by Minnesota Management & Budget Commissioner Myron Frans and State Budget Director Margaret Kelly, as well as a list of more than a dozen testifiers making the case for (and against) spending in areas from housing and schools to the disabled and health care.
It’s the second time Knoblach has led the committee. He returned to the House this year after representing District 16B from 1995-2002, and District 15A from 2003-2006 (when he was also the committee chair).
Session Daily spoke with Knoblach about the budget resolution process after Monday’s floor session, near the desk of the Ways and Means DFL Lead (and past chair) Rep. Lyndon Carlson Sr. (DFL-Crystal), who Knoblach had dashed over to visit as soon as the House speaker’s gavel fell. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Session Daily: What happens in the budget resolution process over the next week?
Jim Knoblach: The Ways and Means Committee has a vote where it decides how much General Fund money to spend in total, how much money to put in the budget reserve and the cash flow account, and how much each of the finance committees should get.
SD: How do we get to a budget resolution next Tuesday from today?
Knoblach: We’ll watch for the governor’s supplemental budget tomorrow [Tuesday]. We always look and see if there are some ideas in there that we’d like to take up. Maybe some ideas that save money or — who knows? — maybe some spending ideas.
We’re continuing to talk to finance [committee] chairs, as I’ve been talking to them for weeks or probably months at this point. Eventually we will have a final agreement amongst everyone, and I’ll talk to Rep. Carlson too, and we’ll come up with a final budget resolution that we’ll vote on by no later than a week from Tuesday. I author the budget resolution and present it and try to encourage people to vote for it.
SD: Why does this process take until the last day?
Knoblach: Well, there are other things going on. For example, the House Republicans are going to be coming out with a new transportation bill here in the near future. We can’t really put out our budget resolution that says how much money we’re going to spend on transportation until the transportation bill is out. And so there are some things like that that push it back.
SD: What does a budget target mean?
Knoblach: A budget target is how much General Fund money each committee has to spend. So if you say that the budget target for E-12 Education is $17 billion, they have $17 billion to spend over the next two years. And then the committee itself will decide how to spend that money. I mean, how much goes to special education, how much of it goes on the funding formula and so forth.
SD: “Target” sounds a little bit like a goal, but is it more of a hard number than that?
Knoblach: That’s an interesting point. No, it’s a hard number. If they show up and they said, “We just decided to spend we need to spend more money,” what will happen is their bill will eventually come to Ways and Means. All the finance committees will put their bills together, they’ll pass out of the finance committees then they’ll come to Ways and Means. If they were above the target, we’ll say, “Sorry about this. There’s got to be some adjustments here.”
SD: Then you’d send it back to the committee?
Knoblach: Or we’d just trim it off.
SD: How is the process today different from when you were House Ways and Means Committee chair 10 years ago?
Knoblach: Probably the biggest difference is that we used to take the budget resolution out to the floor for a vote of the House. We did that the four years that I chaired Ways and Means from 2003 to 2006. And then after I retired in 2006, the Democrats took over and they changed it so just the Ways and Means Committee sets the targets. And then the Republicans, when they took over in 2011, they kept it that way. And it’s been kept that way by both caucuses ever since.
SD: What difference did that make, bringing it to the floor? Was it sort of rowdy?
Knoblach: It certainly was another big debate day on the Floor but it wasn’t necessarily hard to manage. We didn’t have very many amendments because people didn’t want to say, “I want to take money from the X Committee and put it in the Y Committee,” because you were just offending someone. Nevertheless it was always a lot of Floor debate. I think there’s a case to be made that it should be that way, but both caucuses have pretty much left it [this] way for the last 10 years. Only the committee gets to vote on it, not the whole House.
SD: At a recent House Taxes Committee meeting, someone recalled that a House Speaker decades ago carried the entire budget on a piece of paper. They asked if you carried the budget targets with you and you pulled a piece of paper from your pocket. Was that true?
Knoblach: No, it’s not true [laughing]. That was a blank piece of paper. I couldn’t do it — we don’t have targets yet.