Republicans show where their values lie:
underwhelming budget bills in favor of large tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy
Senators and staff put in plenty of long hours in the two weeks leading up to the start of Easter/Passover break. 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 three in the morning on a bill many DFL senators found particularly egregious. Many of the bills passed fly in the face of Minnesota values of fairness, caring for vulnerable neighbors, and supporting Minnesota’s schools.
The Senate took up the $300 million education budget 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. DFL senators objected – not only to the size of the bill, which is less than half of Governor Dayton’s $709 million education proposal – but also to the total lack of new funding for early education. The underwhelming funding in this bill will force schools to make the unenviable decision: seek to increase local levies or cut programs.
The Senate also dedicated a solid seven hours to debating the $900 million tax bill – a piece of legislation that prioritized major cuts for business property taxes, but did very little for the average middle class family. DFL senators were united in their opposition to a $35 million provision that creates tax credits for corporations and the very wealthy that fund scholarships for private schools in Minnesota.
The health and human services budget bill was also met with frustration by DFL senators who argue that Senate Republicans are cutting $335 million from health and human services and masking the severity of this cut through shifts and gimmicks in 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.
The judiciary and higher education budget bills were likewise underwhelming. Both bills received scathing criticism from DFL senators – particularly the higher education bill, which short-changes 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 Governor Dayton recommended.
A particularly contentious floor debate took place after a long day of committee hearings, with session beginning at 7 p.m. Three major budget bills received a vote that night: jobs, state government, and environment. The state government debate grew heated as legislators debated the arbitrary 7.5% cuts to every single state agency and cybersecurity vulnerability. The night 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.
Debate on the environment bill drew some of the sharpest criticism, with debate happening from 1- 3 a.m. The bill puts Minnesota’s water quality in jeopardy by exempting hundreds of thousands of acres of land from the state’s buffer law.
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 DFL opposition to the expensive one-time fix that doesn’t guarantee lower health insurance premiums.
The Senate also reconsidered the REAL ID bill several weeks after it failed on the Senate floor due to unnecessary, controversial immigration language. It passed with bipartisan support and will move next to a conference committee with members of the House of Representatives. Senators also voted on and approved a $400 million transportation bill. The money to fund this bill is shifted from the general fund – a move that is unsustainable. DFL senators who objected to the shift prefer to use the money to fund schools, senior services, and veterans. Transit funding is completely left out of the bill, which could stall any transit projects currently in the works including Southwest Light Rail. It could also mean significant cuts to existing bus line routes, leaving thousands of Minnesotans without a reliable method of transportation.
When senators return to the Capitol mid-April, conference committee work will begin to reconcile differences between the House and Senate language – and ensure the bills meet Governor Dayton’s standards for passage.