Action has switched from daily committee meeting to long floor sessions in the Minnesota House as we debate and pass the major omnibus spending bills that will provide the funding to operate state budgets for the next two years beginning July 1. In all, there are ten spending bills that need approval, and we worked through half of them in the past week. The others, including House Republicans’ nearly $2 billion tax cut bill, will be up for debate this week.
One of the spending bills passed last week was the transportation bill, which will now go to a conference committee with the Senate. Included in House plan is a $25 million appropriation for cities under 5,000 population that will assist them with their local transportation needs. In total, it raises $7 billion over the next ten years without any additional gas taxes. Currently, both the Senate and Gov. Dayton have a different plan in that they are proposing a sales tax increase on fuel, which would go up or down annually, based on the wholesale price of gas. Sixteen cents per gallon would be the minimum increase under their plan, with additional hikes as the price of fuel goes up.
The largest single outlay in state government, the K-12 education bill, was passed in a rare Saturday session last week. Many are concerned about the relatively small increase in the basic education formula the state pays to local schools based on student enrollment. The House proposal calls for a 1.2 percent increase over two years; while both the Senate and governor have a 2 percent increase in their plans. To me, the biggest topic that needs compromise in this area is the governor’s call for a new area of spending for pre-kindergarten students. It spreads available funding too thin and adds additional cost to schools, leaving less funding to put on the basic formula.
On a related note, included in our House education bill is wording that allows local school districts to make their own decision on implementing a four-day school week. One school in our area, BBE, had gone to that schedule and found it fairly successful. However, the State Dept. of Education will not allow them to continue using the four-day week in the future. It is uncertain if the governor would support the new language in this bill. In additional, on a voice vote, House members voted down the annual request to allow schools to begin classes before Labor Day.
National Guard units from Willmar and Brooklyn Park will be activated this week to assist in delivering water for use in disease containment as it relates to the Avian Influenza outbreak in Minnesota. At least 30 soldiers and 15 military trucks will be utilized at first to assist in the foaming process, which is the method used to de-populate affected birds as a measure to contain the disease and keep it from spreading.
The emergency spending bill, providing funding to the Dept. of Agriculture and the Board of Animal Health during this outbreak, has been caught up in the political process at the Legislature. The House suspended its rules and passed the measure that gives additional funding for the remainder of this fiscal year through June 30. However, the Senate added a completely unrelated amendment to the bill and sent it back to the House. We voted not to accept the bill in that form and appointed members to a conference committee to work on cleaning up the language. As of this writing (April 27), that work had not been completed and the bill has not been sent to the governor for his signature.