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Minnesota Senate Democrats take middle ground on budget

By Don Davis

St. PAUL -- Minnesota Senate Democrats' budget plan falls between higher-spending Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and big-tax-cut House Republicans.

Senators proposed their biggest increase in spending for education programs and want to boost the budget reserve by $250 million.

Despite rhetoric that promotes one plan or another, total budgets fall fairly close to each other.

The budget plan Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, announced Friday stands at $42.7 billion in the next two years. Dayton's budget plan is nearly $43 billion and House Republicans are at $42.6 billion.

The state is on track to spend almost $40 billion in the two years that end June 30.

"It's going to spend less than the governor’s," Bakk said about the budget outline he unveiled. "It's going to cut taxes less than the House."

When lawmakers return from their Easter-Passover break on April 7, House and Senate committees will begin to make specific spending decisions, which will allow negotiators to begin work on a final budget about May 1. The Legislature must adjourn by May 18.

While the three budgets are not far apart in size, there is a big difference in how the governor, Republicans and Democrats would handle the money.

One way to look at the budget differences is how the state's $1.9 billion budget surplus would be used: Dayton would spend most of it, the House would turn all of the surplus into tax cuts and the Senate would spend much of it, but also put more into the budget reserve and cut taxes.

Bakk said the $250 million addition to the budget reserve is especially important. The senator said that money needs to be socked away to be prepared for the next economic dip.

"Everybody would like to spend more money, everyone would like a tax cut," Bakk said, but the state budget needs stability more.

House Republicans want to add $100 million to the state's reserve, while Dayton proposes to add nothing.

As with Dayton, Senate Democrats emphasized increasing education spending. The three proposed budgets would spend $16 billion to $17 billion in the next two years for public school education, the biggest single portion of the state budget. Colleges and universities would get about $3 billion.

One of Bakk's top aides hopes for more.

Efforts will be made to increase early childhood through high school spending even more than in the Senate budget outline, Assistant Majority Leader Katie Sieben, D-Cottage Grove, said, because "there is some concern" about the level Bakk announced.

In higher education, spending money for tuition freezes "is not sustainable," Bakk said, suggesting that limiting freezes to undergraduates or for just one  year may be possible. House Republicans said they also could not afford a two-year freeze, although Dayton includes the funds for it.

Comparing the Dayton, Senate and House plans is impossible because of lack of details in the legislative plans. The three plans also group spending in different categories.

There are some factors that Bakk and other Senate leaders made clear will be in their final budget proposal:

  •  Vocational colleges would receive help to train students for open jobs around the state.
  •  Student loan forgiveness would be made available to health-care professionals who locate in rural areas.
  •  "We are looking forward to some modest" tax cuts, Taxes Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said, adding that details remain to be decided.
  •  Additional aid to local governments is probable.

Republicans were not impressed.

“The state budget should reflect Minnesotans’ values, but Senate Democrats clearly refuse to do the hard work Republicans are doing to eliminate wasteful spending..." Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said. "Like Gov. Dayton, Sen. Bakk and the Senate Democrats have forgotten who the budget surplus actually belongs to: the people of Minnesota.”

Dayton said he wants a public works bill, funded by the state selling $850 million worth of bonds and House Republicans do not plan on a bonding bill this year. Bakk said he has asked bonding Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, to prepare a bill with $30 million for Capitol renovation needs and statewide expenses for items such as state-run college and university asset preservation.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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