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Education funding debate echos overall Minnesota money dispute

ST. PAUL — Republicans want to hold state spending in line, while Democrats want to bump up funding in some areas of Minnesota's government.

That was the basic argument Monday as the GOP-controlled House passed legislation 84-46 funding education programs from early childhood through college. It also was a preview of what Minnesotans can expect the rest of this week as the House and Democratic-run Senate pass budget bills destined to collide as high-level negotiators discuss how to merge vastly different visions about how to change the state's existing two-year, $42 billion budget.

The budget bill was heavily supported by Republicans, with some Democratic support, as can be expected for other bills this week.

Like in other areas of the budget, Republican House leaders opted not to raise the amount of money spent on education from a two-year budget passed last year. However, House Education Chairwoman Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, found some existing money for new uses.

"We tackle a few things that our districts are telling us are becoming critical needs," Loon said, including methods to fill rural teacher shortages and those in certain types of teachers such as special education and science.

The House bill would set aside $16.8 million for teacher shortages.

Loon said that about $50 million is available from a plan for some school districts to refinance loans. Some of that would be used to expand statewide school aid now only available in the Twin Cities.

"We want every child, no matter where they live, to have the opportunity to get a world-class education," Loon said.

Loon said she also found money in items approved in previous years, but not spent.

Lack of new spending bothered Democrats. The biggest disappointment, Assistant House Minority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said, is that no new money would be spent on early-childhood education.

In education spending, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton wants a $77 million boost in early childhood through high school, while Senate Democrats seek $48 million more. In higher education, Dayton calls for a $56 million increase and Senate Democrats want $48 million.

Overall, the budget discussion has not advanced since the legislative session began early last month. But as lawmakers head toward a constitutionally mandated May 23 adjournment date, talks must begin about how -- and whether -- to change the existing budget.

Republicans want to divide the state's projected $900 million budget surplus between tax cuts and increased transportation spending. In areas where they want to spend more money, Republican lawmakers propose taking it from existing programs, like seen Monday when they argued for their education bill.

Senate Democrats propose increasing overall spending nearly $700 million, while Dayton's increase would be closer to $800 million. To reach their higher numbers, Democrats would not shift money from existing programs to new ones, as would Republicans, but would use surplus money for part of the increase.

Democrats also would raise the state gasoline tax, while Republicans propose taking money from current programs to fund road and bridge needs.

In the Senate, one overall budget bill is due to be debated Thursday as the House divides its spending plan up into smaller bites throughout the week.

The House education bill also:

  • Requires school boards to hold public hearings before raising or extending property taxes.
  • Funds GED tests for Minnesotans seeking to obtain the equivalent of a high school diploma.
  • Gives teachers the ability to remove dangerous students from their classrooms.
  • Provides teachers a notice if a student has a violent history.
  • Requires public school students correctly answer at least 30 of 50 questions on a test given immigrants seeking to become citizens; however, students who fail to pass still could graduate.
  • Authorizes the Moorhead and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton school districts to change their shared boundaries.
  • Restricts University of Minnesota research use of fetal tissue.
  • Launches a Minnesota State Colleges and Universities pilot program to serve students with intellectual and developmental disabilities that includes an opportunity for a two-year, full-time college residential experience.
  • Provides money to schools to expand their high-speed Internet services.