The Minnesota House passed a major increase in education funding Tuesday after an hourslong debate that veered into the contentious issue of sex education.
House Democrats would spend nearly $20.5 billion during the next two years to support local school districts — a 9% increase that faces resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“We’re asking schools to prepare a group of students who have greater needs than we’ve had in the past,” said state Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, the majority leader. “The value of education for the economy is greater than it ever has been, and we have to make sure the schools have the tools to do the job. And the Legislature has not been doing that for years.”
The increase, passed 79-54, was the opening gambit in what is expected to be a tough negotiation between the newly Democratic-controlled House and the GOP-controlled Senate as they finalize a deal on a two-year state budget expected to top $45 billion. School spending has been about 40% of the state budget in recent years.
“I think everyone is focused on making sure education is taken care of,” said state Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, the majority leader of the upper chamber.
The difference between the House and Senate school budgets is vast. The Senate, which is expected to take up its own education budget in the coming days, is proposing an increase of 4.8% from the previous two years. House Democrats and Gov. Tim Walz say the increase would be wiped out once inflation costs and enrollment growth are taken into account.
“The Senate budget is a cut budget, an austerity budget in a time when we don’t need to take that approach,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “Minnesotans are not asking for that.”
The House’s overall budget would require a 20 cent gas tax increase and the extension of a tax on health care providers that is set to expire later this year. It would also increase taxes on Minnesota corporations’ foreign income. Republicans, who oppose such hikes, argue that lawmakers should be able to fund government with existing revenue.
“It’s unrealistic,” said state Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. “I have yet to hear the argument of how we’re going to pay for this without transferring money from the transportation fund and thus requiring a regressive gas tax to backfill that,” he said.
Republicans offered up more than 100 amendments that slowed the debate while also taking aim at various Democratic policy proposals, including language requiring comprehensive sex education in elementary and secondary schools.
“School districts have been frank,” Kresha said. “Leave the policy alone. Have that in a separate discussion.”
Supporters of the sex education provision said data indicates that the approach would reduce unwanted pregnancies and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.
Opponents voiced concerns about requiring age-appropropriate instruction on topics like sexual development, same-sex relationships and gender identity. John Helmberger, chief executive of the Minnesota Family Council, called the proposal “an affront to parents’ rights.”
“It is deeply concerning that some legislators think it’s OK to circumvent parents and expose children to these sexual issues in this manner,” he said.
The Senate, which was expected to take up bills Tuesday to fund agriculture and environment programs, has yet to vote on its version of the schools budget. Gazelka said that while bridging the budget gap will be difficult, he sees “no reason we can’t get there” by the late May session deadline.
“I’m confident we can get there, but I do want to bring down some of the expectations of spending increases that the governor and the House want,” he said.