All budget bills passed in Senate; agreements must be made with House to move forward

Senators and staff put in plenty of long hours in the two weeks leading up to the start of Easter/Passover break, which begins on April 8. 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 3:00 in the morning on a bill many DFL Senators found particularly egregious.

The Senate took up the $300 million education 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. I joined the majority of my DFL colleagues in voting against the bill, not only due to the size of the bill—which is $400 million less than Governor Dayton’s $709 million education proposal—but also the total lack of new funding for early education. The low target of $300 million in this bill will force schools to make the unenviable decision: seek to increase local levies or cut programs and/or staff.

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. There was particularly lengthy debate in opposition to a $35 million provision that created tax credits to corporations and the very wealthy that fund scholarships for private schools in Minnesota, or vouchers, as many call them.

The health and human services bill was also met with frustration by many 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 at 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 a few DFL votes – but the higher education bill, in particular, will short-change 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 7:00 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 percent 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.

The environment bill was particularly underfunded, as the committee was given a negative $40 million target, leaving an $80 million difference between the Governor’s bill and the Senate bill.

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 and could be viewed as a handout to insurance companies. The Governor allowed it to become law without his signature.

The Senate also reconsidered the REAL ID bill, several weeks after it failed on the Senate floor due to unnecessary, controversial immigration language. Minnesotans concerned about their ability to board an airplane next year can rest easy, the REAL ID bill passed with bipartisan support. The final bill will be worked out in a conference committee.  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 many deem to be unsustainable. The DFL and Governor prefer to use general fund money to invest in schools, senior services or veterans or other general fund obligations. Transit funding is also completely left out of the bill, which could stall any transit projects currently in the works including SWLRT. It could also mean significant cuts to existing bus line routes, leaving countless Minnesotans without a reliable method of transportation.

When Senators return to the capitol in mid-April, conference committee work will begin to reconcile differences between the House and Senate language. Of course, the Governor’s veto pen could loom large, so hopefully the bills meet Gov. Dayton’s standards for passage.

 

This column was first published in the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Senator David Tomassoni
David Tomassoni represents District 6, which includes portions of Itasca and St. Louis counties in the northeastern part of the state.

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