Minnesota Senate approves key pieces of state budget planMinnesota's two-year budget puzzle was coming together early Friday morning as the state Senate passed the two biggest pieces of state spending — health and social services, and education — after several hours of debate.
By: Christopher Snowbeck, St. Paul Pioneer Press / MCT
The Minnesota Senate engaged in a marathon debate Thursday on bills that would comprise more than two-thirds of the state budget.
After more than eight hours, lawmakers voted 35-28 to approve a $15.6 billion education bill that would fund statewide all-day kindergarten and add to the state’s general education funding formula.
Senators then pressed on for several hours late into the night debating a bill for about $11.2 billion in spending on health and human service programs. Shortly after midnight, it passed on a 36-28 vote that was mostly along party lines.
The bills, which cover spending for two years beginning in July, would account for more than two-thirds of a $38 billion budget put forward by the DFL majority in the Senate.
The Senate spending bills for schools and human service programs differ from bills passed this week in the House.
Not only must the differences be worked out in conference committees, the House and Senate must agree on how much new tax revenue must be raised to pay for the programs.
The House this week passed a bill calling for $2.6 billion in new taxes; the Senate is expected next week to consider legislation that would raise $1.8 billion.
"I suggested the first thing we need to agree on is how much money the tax bill is going to raise," Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk told the Associated Press.
Only then can lawmakers set the parameters for negotiators working out the details of spending bills, said Bakk, DFL-Cook.
Like the House education bill, the Senate bill includes new money for free, all-day kindergarten statewide. About two-thirds of the state’s school districts now provide all-day kindergarten, but some of them charge.
"Every child in Minnesota, regardless of their ZIP code, deserves the same opportunity to enroll in all-day K," Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said in a statement.
Wiger, who authored the education bill, said the legislation also would boost early learning scholarships for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds.
The Senate and House education budgets differ on how much would be added to the state’s general funding formula. The Senate proposes adding $52 per pupil while the House proposes $209.
Wiger’s budget also would add $11 million for special education programming.
One lingering question involves $854 million the state still owes schools from previous borrowing to balance budget deficits. Top House lawmakers say the debt must be settled; Senate DFL members agreed with Dayton’s approach to pay off those loans sometime in the future.
Senate Republicans also objected to the bill’s changes to high school graduation exams. It would replace the current test, which requires a student to get a minimum score in order to graduate, with a system of tests starting in eighth or ninth grade that Democrats say will help struggling students earlier and better prepare all students for college.
"A student doesn’t have to demonstrate proficiency in order to graduate," Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, said of that change. "It means your diploma is meaningless."
The Senate health and human service bill would provide a 5 percent increase over current spending on programs that include Medical Assistance, MinnesotaCare and welfare. Medical Assistance, which is the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program, is a key provider for nursing home services in Minnesota.
Without changes to current law, the state would spend about $11.35 billion on health and human service programs. Senate leaders, however, set a lower budget target for program spending of $11.2 billion - a move criticized by Republicans.
"We are spending money like a drunken sailor on other things," Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said in an interview Thursday. "It’s really disheartening to see that we can’t fund some basic priorities, and I think that’s our vulnerable."
Republicans offered amendments Thursday trying to re-direct money from the state’s health insurance exchange to nursing homes, but the proposed changes were defeated.
They also failed to add a new licensure requirement for abortion providers -- an amendment that passed this week in the House bill for health and human services.
By 11 p.m. Thursday, debate turned to a Republican amendment that would have blocked funding for community gardens in the health bill. That amendment was defeated, too, with DFLers defending the gardens as a small part of the State Health Improvement Program, which tries to reduce health risks and contain health costs in the process.
Republicans weren’t the only ones Thursday pushing for changes in the health bill. Earlier in the day, advocates for people with disabilities rallied at the Capitol in hopes of pushing DFLers to find more money for Medicaid services.
Despite the reduced budget target set by Senate leaders, Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said the health and human services bill still protects services for vulnerable groups. It does so, in part, through an $80 million surcharge on HMOs that manage care for patients with Medicaid health insurance, Lourey said.
"Many of us would like to see more increases than we were able to provide," said Lourey, the chief author of the health and human services bill. But he added: "We were able to make the necessary adjustments to protect our most vulnerable populations."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.