Republicans say they have budget plan but won’t give details

GOP legislative leaders are delivering budget targets to committee chairs with the hopes that lawmakers can finish their work by the constitutional deadline to adjourn. Leaders are mum on what their budget plan will look like but those figures will be released as budget conference committees meet over the next two days. They say they won’t discuss the details of their proposal until it’s presented to Gov. Dayton.

“We want to make sure that everyone in that group has been informed before the press,” GOP House Speaker Kurt Zellers said. “So they don’t get a ‘Hey, here’s what happened by press release.”

Zellers would not say how much the GOP budget bills spend over the next two years. Neither would GOP Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch.

“We’re going to live within our means,” Koch repeatedly said when asked what the Republican budget proposal would be. That’s a departure from past statements that Republicans would not spend more than $34 billion over the next two years.

Koch also declined to release the spending targets for each budget area. Instead, she said those figures would be released by the respective conference committee chairs. She characterized those figures as “working targets.”

Republicans have been adamant that they won’t increase taxes to erase a $5 billion projected budget deficit. That puts them at odds with Gov. Mark Dayton who is proposing state spending of $37 billion over the next two years. Dayton is proposing an income tax increase on Minnesota’s top earners to help balance the budget.

The decision to move forward with budget targets is a concession to Gov. Dayton that the GOP majorities in the House and Senate present a single budget to him. The House and Senate passed their respective budgets in early April but Dayton told them he wouldn’t begin negotiating until they worked out their differences in conference committees. Dayton told reporters earlier today that he was willing to accept the conference committee reports as a final budget plan.

“In the spirit of trying to work this out I won’t require the conference committee reports to be passed,” Dayton said. “But I’m willing to begin those negotiations once I see their entire budget.”

Conference committee chairs scheduled hearings on Thursday night and Friday morning with the intention of finalizing their budget plans. The chair of the State Government Finance Conference Committee announced that group will release the details of its plan on Friday morning. The K-12 education conference committee has already agreed to spend $14 billion over the next two years.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, says he expects the Health and Human Services Conference Committee to wrap up tonight. Abeler says the committee’s “working target” will be $10.7 billion over the next two years.

Abeler says Republicans are still pursuing a “global waiver” from the federal government to restructure the way the state provides health care to low income Minnesotans, but won’t bank most of the savings from the waiver unless it’s approved. Republicans were suggesting that a waiver would save the state upwards of $600 million. Abeler says the House and Senate will still ask the federal government to allow Minnesota to administer health care programs differently.

“As to savings in the bill related to that, we have hardly any,” Abeler said. “It’s under $100 million and probably less than that.”

Abeler said there will be some unspecified program cuts and rate cuts to balance the budget. He also said the plan would decrease payments to doctors and hospitals that are inefficient. He also said health care providers would receive less money from the state but would have “more flexibility” to treat patients. He also said he’s aiming to better manage the needs of the disabled community so they can move to more independent care.

The House and Senate are still pushing a plan to end the Medicaid expansion that Gov. Dayton approved in January. Dayton said he would veto such a measure.

While the House and Senate appear to be close to wrapping up the HHS bill, it’s no guarantee that the proposal will become law. The plan is still $1 billion less than Gov. Dayton’s proposal.

“This could be done by May 23rd,” Abeler said. “The question is whether they can agree on revenue.”

And those negotiations may still be difficult. Abeler says Republicans won’t support Dayton’s tax increase to balance the budget. But he and other Republicans say they hope they can reach an agreement before the constitutional deadline to adjourn.

Democrats are less hopeful.

“The Republicans have refused to move,” DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said when asked if a special legislative session was inevitable. “If they don’t change their ways, absolutely.”

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