Discussion about the omnibus finance bills continues this week at the Legislature. In addition to carrying funding for various areas of the state budget, many of these bills contain controversial policy provisions as well, making for some contentious debates. However, there are many opportunities to find common ground on a bipartisan basis, and this week provided some of those.
Tuesday, the House passed the Omnibus Legacy Bill. The package funds initiatives in all parts of the state from constitutionally dedicated proceeds in areas including the Outdoor Heritage Fund, Clean Water Fund, Parks and Trails Fund and the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. On the floor, we were also able to adopt an amendment increasing funding for the Dept. of Agriculture’s efforts to fight Emerald Ash Borer, which is a slow moving crisis in our state. If left unaddressed, this will cause the destruction of many trees in our communities, and their removal would leave a huge cost.
South St. Paul Rep. Rick Hansen, who offered this amendment, brought Dr. Seuss’s “the Lorax” to the House floor. “I Speak for the Trees” is the memorable line from the book. I’m glad that we had the chance to speak for the trees as part of the Legacy funding debate and in doing so, funded the fight to preserve Ash trees across the state. When this amendment passed, it galvanized the body to be able to pass this bill unanimously.
I remain committed to finding common ground to solve other issues facing our state, with one of most significant being education. Unfortunately, the Republican majority’s budget grossly underfunds public education in Minnesota, both for E-12 students and those at our colleges and universities. The Omnibus E-12 Education bill, which passed off the House floor late last week, contains just meager increases for local schools; in fact, not even large enough to cover inflationary costs. This will certainly lead to teacher layoffs, increased class sizes, and fewer support services for students. What’s more, the highly successful voluntary pre-K program – a key initiative of Gov. Dayton – is completely gutted by the bill.
In Minnesota, we have always provided strong support for public education. My children got a terrific education at Hopkins Public Schools, and now into adulthood, have chosen to stay in Minnesota and raise their children here in Minnesota in large part because of our quality schools. Instead, the Republican budget shifts funding to tax credits for those who donate to private schools. Not only does this squeeze investments from our public schools, but research shows that in other states that have taken a similar approach, achievement doesn’t increase. This bill frankly doesn’t reflect the Minnesota values that we hold dear, and I sincerely hope this can be improved.
Tuesday, we discussed the Omnibus Higher Education bill. We have high quality post-secondary education institutions in every region in this state serving the needs of young people with very diverse ambitions. In order to remain a national leader, we need to maintain access, quality, and affordability so that everyone who is committed to doing so can earn a degree and acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to enter a career of their choice.
The Omnibus Higher Education bill underfunds the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State campuses, and includes just a fraction of the increase Gov. Dayton’s had requested in the Minnesota State Grant Program. It also mandates a two year tuition freeze at our community colleges, but doesn’t include corresponding state funding for it. Freezing tuition without providing this funding means there will be cuts to both access and quality at these institutions. This could mean long-term damage to the viability of both the system and individual campuses.
Each of these bills provide inadequate resources largely because the GOP majority’s tax bill is oversized. This is a question of priorities. Soon, members of the House and Senate will meet in what’s called “conference committees” to resolve their differences in these bills, after which point Gov. Dayton will choose to either to sign them or veto them. I sincerely hope that as we move forward, investments in these areas better reflect our priorities for increased opportunities for learners at every level.
With Easter and Passover on the horizon, action at the Legislature will be on hold next week as we take a customary week-long recess. Please continue to stay in touch with your thoughts on these and other issues. It’s my honor to represent you, and I hope you will feel free to call or email me any time.