Crouching and sitting on a classroom floor, Gov. Mark Dayton mingled with four-year-olds Friday as he made a pitch for a hefty state spending increase for universal access to preschool in Minnesota.
"You look like you're 65," observed one little boy. "Close. I'm 68," said Dayton, who interacted with kids for about 20 minutes as they sat in a group and later worked on iPads.
Dayton wants lawmakers to approve $348 million in new state spending so that every public school in the state could provide such classes. It's the biggest single general fund spending increase Dayton has proposed this year, and comprises about a fifth of the state's projected $1.9 billion budget surplus.
The group of about 15 children in the pre-kindergarten class at Newport Elementary School were well-behaved despite an unusually large crowd of adults accompanying the governor -- aides and security, area state legislators, school district officials and reporters. Their teachers later said the good showing by the kids was a testament to the benefits of early learning.
"We notice a huge difference between students who do pre-K and those who don't," said Brittany Vasecka, a pre-kindergarten teacher at the school. The classes are half-day and run five days a week.
In all, 80 percent of students in the South Washington County district attend pre-kindergarten classes, district officials said. Under Dayton's proposal, both districts that already provide pre-kindergarten classes and those that don't would both be recipients of the money.
"I don't think we should penalize the school districts that have made this commitment," Dayton said.
But some education advocacy groups have jumped on that lack of a distinction. On Thursday, a business-backed nonprofit called Parent Aware for School Readiness released an analysis contending that about 70,000 low-income kids between birth and age 3 could have access to needed early learning programs if about $100 million less were to be spent on the universal preschool initiative.
In a news release, the group said that districts with high numbers of "wealthier families whose children are already likely to be ready for kindergarten" don't need the funding Dayton's proposal would provide.
“That ought to be focused on younger children from low income families,” said Ericca Maas, executive director of the group.
If Dayton and lawmakers were to make preschool access universal to four-year-olds, Maas said, “then next year all of us advocates will be back here saying, ‘what about the three-year-olds.’”
Dayton said he’d be open to more funding for even earlier learning programs. But he said diverting some money away from universal preschool access would run the risk of “pitting four-year-olds against three- and two-year-olds,” Dayton said.
This year, Dayton must navigate the proposal through a GOP-led House, which has different priorities for both the budget surplus and in state management of schools. House Speaker Kurt Daudt and other Republicans, while calling universal preschool a worthy goal, have also suggested some means testing might be needed.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, again signaled he will carve out a third way from House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Gov. Mark Dayton, preferring to keep significant surplus money in reserve rather than cut taxes or spend big sums on new programs.
"I think some people are going to view the Senate as a bit of a Grinch," he said, referring to the curmudgeonly Seuss character who eventually finds the joy of Christmas.
Bakk said he had learned the lessons of budget surpluses of the 1990s, when the Legislature gave tax cuts and spent money until the downturn of the early 2000s, which forced the Legislature to deal with deficits and difficult decisions nearly every budget year after that for a decade.
"Always managing a crisis," he lamented of that time.
House Republicans have called for both tax cuts and new spending, but Bakk singled out fellow DFLer Gov. Mark Dayton, who released another budget blueprint this week calling for more spending on schools and struggling families.
"The governor's made our job much more difficult in the Senate because the appetite to spend is pretty high right now," Bakk said. "But I hope the Senate comes to the same conclusion that I personally have, that some restraint is needed, that the good times won't last, and that we need to be very careful about cutting taxes too much, or spending too much only to find ourselves in a deficit."
The Senate will release budget targets late next week, after the House does so on Tuesday.
Gov. Mark Dayton has requested he be allowed to deliver his State of the State speech on Wednesday, April 8 at 7 p.m.
Dayton made the request Tuesday in letters to House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate President Sandy Pappas. He had initially requested a March 25 date for the annual speech held in the House chamber, but Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk asked him to push that back since it falls just ahead of a legislative break that is typically preceded by a burst of committee activity.
State of the State speeches typically come earlier in the session, although Dayton has made a habit of pushing them back a bit later. Last year, he delivered his speech on April 30.
Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday proposed an additional $865 million in spending to be added to his $42-billion budget proposal, with much of the spending aimed at schools, young families and college students.
The revised budget comes after the state budget office estimated the budget surplus last month grew to $1.9 billion, nearly double the amount Dayton worked with when crafting his original budget blueprint in January. If adopted, Dayton's budget would represent about a 20 percent increase in state spending since he took office.
In his latest plan, Dayton proposed $25 million for nursing home workers, $10.3 million for Indian education on a per-pupil basis and $93 million for an expansion of the working-family and K-12 tax credits.
Arguing against permanent tax cuts or other one-time tax relief, Dayton said that the state should invest the surplus rather than give it back to taxpayers as some Republicans have called for.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey has proposed the state give back the entire surplus, while other GOP legislative leaders have called for other forms of tax relief in addition to spending some of the surplus.
"If we give it all back, then there's nothing left to invest in Minnesota," Dayton said Tuesday.
The DFL governor has dedicated most of the additional spending for schools and other education priorities, including universal access to preschool and tuition freezes for college students.
Calling the spending an investment, Dayton and DFL legislators supportive of his ambitious education agenda items say they will spur future economic growth and development.
He also set aside $2.3 million for a fugitive apprehension division within the Department of Corrections, which will get more personnel under the revised budget plan.
The governor recommended $50 million for child protection task force recommendations, and is planning to restore $3.7 million in state dollars for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board as the agency moves ahead after a conflict over the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail project.
Dayton has also asked for $500,000 for a task force that will study the state health care exchange’s long-term viability, as well as other health care programs and policies. Recommendations would be due by next January.
Gov. Mark Dayton proposes boosting the state’s understaffed Fugitive Apprehension Unit by seven officers as part of his supplemental budget released Tuesday, with another $865 million focused largely on education in addition to his $42 billion budget proposal.
The five-man unit tasked with arresting convicts who violate their probation and parole has been forced to prioritize Minnesota’s most dangerous sex offenders, resulting in a near 100-percent arrest rate. However, focusing on sex offenders means the unit’s overall fugitive apprehension rate is low. In 2014, the Department of Corrections issued 5,180 warrants for fugitive felons statewide. Of those, the unit arrested 361 — a little less than 7 percent.
The Department of Corrections Fugitive Apprehension Unit sought $1.2 million in funding from Dayton’s budget over the next two years for three agents, an intelligence investigator and a support staff member, while the Community Supervision sought $6 million to for agents to monitor offenders on probation or parole. Dayton’s supplemental budget an additional $381,000 for the apprehension unit, and another $2 million for 10 parole agents.
The proposal is part of the public safety portion of Dayton’s budget, which proposes $149 million for the courts and Department of Corrections. It represents 8 percent of the state’s $1.9 billion budget surplus.