Republicans who control the state House and Senate on Friday got on the same page over how much they want the state to spend in the next two years, setting up the final stages of budget deliberations with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton over what to do with about $46 billion in taxpayer dollars over the next two years.
The GOP plan aims to use most of an estimated $1.5 billion surplus to deliver $1.15 billion in tax cuts or credits. Republicans also want to makes cuts to state government agencies and environmental work, and spend significantly less than Dayton wants on schools, transportation and health and human services.
Dayton and DFLers in the Legislature say such moves are unnecessary and will prompt cuts to vital services. But top Republicans in the House and Senate said their budgets reflect the kind of austere approach to spending taxpayer dollars they believe many Minnesotans want.
“Without a doubt we’re going to fight for each of these [budget] targets,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. “We want the governor to engage, and he’s going to push back, without a doubt.”
Asked about the GOP plan, Dayton’s staff referred to comments the governor made Friday on a Minnesota Public Radio appearance. He said he was hopeful he and Republican leaders find a timely resolution, but concerned about how far apart the two sides are at the moment.
“We’ve got some very significant differences on policy matters as well as the budget, and that’s going to be very difficult to resolve,” Dayton said.
With three weeks remaining before the Legislature adjourns, leaders from both parties agree on one thing: They’ve cleared several critical steps in the budgeting process well before the end of the session. In theory, they said, the time remaining should be sufficient to allow the Legislature and the governor to negotiate a plan and pass it without a special session or forcing a government shutdown.
Republicans said they aim to have legislative committees finish their work on budget bills by Monday, and urged Dayton to be ready to negotiate by later next week. They hope to reach agreements on some of the smaller bills, like agriculture, and then move on to bigger-ticket items like education, health and human services, and taxes.
But with a significant gulf remaining between GOP leaders and the governor on those topics — particularly in areas he has made top priorities, like early education and transportation — early progress could quickly stall out.
Months into the session, Republicans and Democrats still disagree over how to compare their budgets. On health and human services, the second largest piece of the budget, GOP leaders say their $25.6 billion plan adds more than $2 billion in spending over the current two-year budget cycle. But Democrats, who on Friday repeatedly called the Republican budget “fuzzy math,” say the new targets actually amount to a $500 million cut because they do not take population growth, inflation and other factors into account.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Republicans created the kind of budget that usually comes out of a much tougher financial situation.
“I would caution my Republican friends: We have a $1.5 billion surplus,” he said. “You will never be able to explain to Minnesotans why you couldn’t get your work done on time when we have plenty of money to fund state government for the next two years.”
Democrats forecast teacher layoffs and university tuition hikes under the GOP proposals for schools and higher education, but Republicans say Dayton’s plan provides more money than schools need.
Similar division is likely over transportation funding and a public works bill, which House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said would be introduced next week. Daudt said the proposal will likely total $800 million or less, while Dayton has called for borrowing $1.5 billion to help with projects ranging from aging roads and bridges to college campus upgrades.
Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, the House GOP leader on the budget, said the tighter budget is a response to the state’s solid financial status. With low unemployment rates and economic growth, he said it makes sense to cut spending on economic development and other state programs.
“We’re not of the belief that government in every area needs to continually grow,” he said.