If state lawmaking were a sport — which for too many of its players, sadly, it seems to be — this week would be the playoffs. With the state Constitution requiring that the regular session end on May 18, legislators are now within days of making their final moves toward setting the next two-year state budget.
But unlike a sport that crowns a single champion and sends other teams home crying, this week’s legislative exertion ought to produce only winners. And it ought to finish within regulation time. While overtime is an option, it’s a poor one in a situation in which lawmakers are at odds not over whom to hurt to close a deficit, but how best to spread the benefits of a $1.865 billion surplus through mid-2017. This year, Minnesotans will have little sympathy for a claim that a special session is necessary.
All year, the Star Tribune Editorial Board has urged DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, the DFL-controlled Senate and the GOP-controlled House to craft a budget that’s geared more to future security than short-term desires. To that plea, today we add another: Make it a fair budget. Offer help to those who need it most. Strive to advance the whole state.
Here are the keys we believe are necessary to a fair, future-oriented and timely budget accord:
• House Republicans need to back away from a flawed human-services budget bill that purports to cut $1.14 billion from general-fund spending in the next two years. It goes awry by too abruptly ending MinnesotaCare, tossing 100,000 low-income Minnesotans into a private insurance market that today is ill-suited to their needs. It uses MinnesotaCare’s funding source, a provider tax, in a way that breaks faith with the health care providers who’ve collected it for 23 years. In so doing, it puts some services in jeopardy in 2018 when the provider tax is slated for repeal.
Worse, it claims $530 million in highly speculative “savings” through eligibility verification and competitive bidding, and by disregarding inflation. Those moves violate a basic rule: Legislators can complain all they’d like about cost estimates derived by Minnesota Management and Budget. But they must use MMB’s numbers, not invent their own.
Those are indefensible positions from which the House should retreat sooner than later. When — and we believe it’s “when,” not “if” — House leaders yield on human-services funding, other pieces of the budget puzzle can begin to fall into place.
• Dayton needs to throttle back his expensive demands for universal preschool for 4-year-olds. The governor has done well to make preschool a much higher priority this year than ever before. We hope he’s willing to declare victory if the House and Senate send him a bill that both enables more needy families to enroll children in high-quality programs, via need-based scholarships, and sends school districts more funding with which to establish or expand sliding-fee programs of their own.
A long-neglected public school program created in 1992 may be key to compromise. It’s School Readiness, originally funded with $10 million in state dollars (often supplemented by local districts) and finally boosted 22 years later to a still-meager $12 million. Yet with that limited funding, this year School Readiness serves 29,000 3- to 5-year-olds and is producing impressive academic results. It seems ripe for expansion.
• Senate DFLers have been playing hard to get on tax relief, knowing that delivering a tax cut is a top priority for House Republicans. That pose needs to end for this week of lawmaking to have a positive finish. Republicans can’t be expected to move away from their positions unless they’re confident that they can deliver some tax relief to Minnesotans.
We support tax relief targeted at lower-income people through the Working Family Credit, at working families with small children through an enriched child care credit, and at businesses proposing job-creating expansions in Minnesota.
That said, the case for more state spending in two areas — education and transportation — outweighs arguments for lower taxes this year. Minnesota is still on the rebound from a dozen years of underinvestment in those two costly public services. If it’s ever going to catch up, it must do so now while a surplus is forecast — and before the deterioration of roads and bridges reaches a point at which total replacements, not mere repairs, are the only option.
A transportation funding bill is not necessary to keeping the government’s lights on after July 1. But it’s every bit as urgent as other state spending bills on the Legislature’s docket.
Likewise, state government’s opportunity to prepare itself for the inevitable next downturn is now. The temptation is strong to spend every dollar on either popular programs or tax cuts. With government divided, each party will be able to blame the other for a failure to sock away some money for a rainy day. Please, lead each other not into temptation.