Although not one of the larger budget bills, the House and Senate passed a nearly $974 million funding package Monday evening that would fund their operations as well as many other state agencies and boards.
Sponsored by Rep. Sarah Anderson (R-Plymouth) and Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids), the agreement on HF495/SF888* is about $78.3 million more than what was proposed by the House and $28.6 million below what the Senate initially proposed. The finished product is a $56 million base increase.
The House passed the bill 71-61; the Senate 44-21.
“This bill basically funds the nuts and bolts of state government,” Anderson said.
Saxhaug said the agreement continues to make investments to core functions that people expect from their government.
“This bill is better than it was, but it’s not good enough for a green vote,” said Rep. Sheldon Johnson (DFL-St. Paul).
The agreement calls for a 1.8 percent compensation operating adjustment for many executive branch offices and state boards, including the governor’s office, Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, Minnesota Management & Budget, Revenue and Administration departments and the state’s four ethnic councils.
Among the differences entering the conference committee, the House plan called for a 6.5 percent base reduction to the constitutional offices; the Senate did not. The House also would have reduced most state agency budgets by a small percentage; the Senate generally did not.
Other spending increases in the bill include:
The agreement calls for a two-year repeal of the state’s political contribution fund — including the ability for individuals to get a $50 refund for specific political contributions.
“Is it really a priority of the state to spend public tax dollars on politician’s campaigns?” Anderson said. “That’s what the PCR program does.”
Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) spoke against the change, saying it “empowers corporate special interests (and) it disempowers regular citizens.”
The agreement also calls for a $36 million one-time reduction in state contribution to the Public Employees Retirement Association for Minneapolis pension reimbursement. Earlier this year, Anderson said an actuarial report indicated that reducing the state share would still keep the fund on solid footing, in part, because the employer share doesn’t change and less overall money is needed for the fund.
Potential state audit changes
Among the policy provisions, the agreement would direct “the Office of the Legislative Auditor shall report on the efficiency of the examinations conducted by the state auditor” and report back to the Legislature by Jan. 15, 2016. It would also allow a county, beginning Aug. 1, 2016, to have its annual financial audit performed by the state auditor’s office or a private CPA firm, a provision that State Auditor Rebecca Otto spoke passionately against early Monday in conference committee.
Anderson said 59 of 87 counties are required to have their audit done by the state auditor. “In fact, counties like Hennepin County and Washington County, some of the largest counties, are not even required to be audited by the state auditor. This is not a new concept; it’s extending that courtesy to the other counties in the state.”
She also said county officials have expressed frustration with currently received services, including higher costs and the length of time it takes to receive audit results.
Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake) said county officials in his district have indicated the change could save them “tens of thousands of dollars. … This will be healthy for our counties as an option.”
“I feel this would set a bad precedent moving toward privatization,” said Senate President Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul). A former local government committee chair, she said she’d never once had a county come forward with concerns about the auditor. “Who should be responsible for watching the public dollar?”
Others against the idea spoke about concerns of the independence of the private auditor. “When you’re the one paying the bill, sometimes you can get sort of the opinion you’re looking for,” said Rep. Joe Atkins (DFL-Inver Grove Heights).
Other policy provisions
“We have some great reform measures,” Anderson said. Among them are: