With a flurry of hasty lawmaking, the Minnesota Legislature intends to do Monday what it set out to do on Jan. 6 — set a 2016-17 state budget.
That will be a hard-fought achievement. Regrettably, it’s also a minimal one — and may fall one vital bill short. Bills required to keep state government operational for the next two years are on Monday’s docket. Absent are bills that carried many aspirations for this lawmaking season — transportation, taxes and a major bonding bill. Under a veto threat: a $17 billion E-12 education bill that school districts deem essential.
Agreement on those measures proved to be a reach too far for a government divided between a DFL governor and Senate and a Republican House. The inability of those three forces to come to a wider accord leaves many Minnesotans disappointed and legislators with a challenging agenda to complete next year.
Or this summer, in a special session. That’s what’s likely if a deal is not struck by midnight Monday on the E-12 funding bill. Gov. Mark Dayton says the bill’s proffered $400 million increase is too small and its preschool provisions too meager to win his signature. He’s insisting on at least a half-day of tuition-free preschool in willing districts, a $171 million item.
This newspaper prefers preschool scholarships for needy children rather than an expansive new public school program. But we concur with Dayton to this extent: The Legislature’s proposed $60 million over two years for preschoolers, to be split between school districts and scholarships for needy children, will not stretch far enough. We’re rooting for a compromise that boosts that funding level while targeting children most in need. Scholarships would do that. So would a school district-based program, School Readiness, that has been too small for too long.
Minnesotans will likely spend weeks analyzing the contents of the other major spending bills, most of which flew out of conference committees late Saturday or early Sunday and are headed for floor action Monday.
That’s a poor way to conduct the public’s business. Shaping final bills during a weekend’s wee hours is a practice that seems designed to exclude the public. Observers were completely excluded from long sessions at the Governor’s Residence last week when Dayton and key legislators met to seek compromise. Their retreat to a “cone of silence” was defended as essential to bipartisan dealmaking at a session’s end. The meager fruit that secrecy bore this year calls that contention into question.
Early reviews praised the new spending in human services but noted that obligations that had been borne by the state’s general fund have been shifted to a separate state fund that’s slated to lose its revenue stream in 2019.
The higher-education bill is not rich enough to ensure the extension of a tuition freeze at public colleges and universities, and is unfairly tightfisted with the University of Minnesota. Still, to their credit, legislators plan to send the U’s Medical School $30 million to spur research.
While we sympathize with those who sought more state spending, we also believe that this year’s surplus forecast generated unrealistic expectations. The two-year budget headed for enactment Monday tops $41.5 billion. That sum helps put this year’s $1.865 billion surplus into perspective. It also should inform Minnesotans’ thinking about the sum that would remain on the biennial bottom line, available for allocation in 2016 — at least $1 billion, depending on the fate of the education bill.
For now, those funds serve as a temporary reserve. Experts have long urged that state government keep reserves in excess of $2 billion. In backhanded fashion, that goal appears about to be met. As headlines accumulate about bird flu, a mining slowdown and extreme weather, it’s not all bad to have state budget that’s well into the black.