Minnesotans have always had big hearts for little children and learning. On Tuesday, Gov. Mark Dayton advanced a $42 billion, 2016-17 biennial budget that invites a politically divided Legislature to put more state money where those hearts are.
More than half of a forecast $1 billion increase in state tax collections in the coming two years would go to children and their education, under the budget plan the DFL governor sent to the Legislature for preliminary consideration.
That plan’s release kicks off a four-month budgeting process that won’t move into high gear until a second forecast is made in late February and Dayton issues a supplemental plan in March. Governors don’t have the final word. But even when the Legislature and governor are opposed politically, as Dayton and the House are this year, gubernatorial budgets generally set the Legislature’s agenda.
That qualifies Dayton’s proposal as a breakthrough for early education in Minnesota. For at least a dozen years, educators and economists have joined forces to say that Minnesota is missing a good competitive bet by not beefing up preschool quality and availability, especially for children from low-income families. Progress was made in that direction in 2013. But this gubernatorial budget should move young children higher on the roster of legislative priorities than ever before.
Dayton’s budget for preschoolers contains two big-ticket items. One would enable more school districts to offer preschool to 4-year-olds, beginning in fall 2016, for a one-year cost to the state treasury of $109 million. The other would enrich tax credits for child care for low- and middle-income families, to the tune of $100 million over two years.
Taken alone, those ideas could be faulted for failing to sufficiently target resources at the state’s neediest kids. But there’s more. Dayton also proposes increases in means-tested child care subsidies, Head Start, early-learning scholarships, and services to low-income families served by the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood. He would beef up child protection and children’s mental health services, offer school kids free breakfast through third grade, fund more tutors to boost reading education, and offer more culturally specific academic help to American Indian students. And he proposes a 1 percent per year increase in the state’s K-12 funding, along with more flexibility for school districts in how state money is spent.
The Legislature would do well to ask whether Dayton’s allocations do enough for the kids who need help most, and whether there are better strategies for improving achievement. But legislators ought not dismiss Dayton’s ideas out of hand as too costly or insufficiently innovative, as some Republican legislators did Tuesday. They would do better to acknowledge that Minnesota needs to do better by its youngest children and to put forward their own ideas.
In other respects, Dayton’s budget can be deemed modest — and in a couple of cases, pointedly frugal. Dayton denied an increase in this early budget to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, in order to send a message: Chancellor Steven Rosenstone and the system’s faculty must find a way to work together.
Votes of faculty no-confidence in Rosenstone in recent months have stalled implementation of a promising new strategic plan. The two sides are said to be quietly mediating their differences; Dayton said he hopes to put MnSCU back in his budget in March. It’s a hope we share. Higher ed deserves a banner year at the Legislature, too, if it is to do its part in averting a looming shortage of workers.
Also omitted was funding for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which Dayton said should not have access to state dollars that could be used to finance a legal challenge to the proposed Southwest light-rail transit route through city parkland. Previous Minnesota governors likely sent similar messages via their budgets, but few have been less subtle.
Notable, too, for its absence from Dayton’s plan was any use of general fund dollars for roads and bridges. On Monday, Dayton laid out a long transportation wish-list totaling an eye-popping $11 billion over 10 years. That sum would be raised with highway-dedicated fuel taxes and license tab fees and a transit-dedicated metro sales tax. Only transit improvements in Greater Minnesota and bike and pedestrian upgrades would be financed via the general fund.
The House GOP transportation bid to date is much smaller — $750 million over four years — and it draws $200 million of that sum from the state general fund. Republicans note that 33 other states pay for transportation that way. Minnesota has not, for the good reason that this state’s general fund is notoriously volatile and vulnerable to political vagaries. It’s not a reliable source of funding for projects that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and are many years in the making.
Tuesday’s biennial budget proposal was the first from a Minnesota governor since 2007 that did not need to include a plan for eliminating a deficit. Lawmakers have the best chance they’ve had in years to budget not for a crisis, but for the future. Dayton’s 2016-17 plan plainly was designed in that spirit. The Legislature should receive it and improve on it with the same long view.