Despite veto threat, lawmakers press ahead on budget

State lawmakers worked late into the night on Saturday on parts of a $41.5 billion two year state budget. But a veto threat has increased the prospects of a special session.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton Saturday repeated that he would veto a budget bill that finances K-12 schools and early childhood education.

“If they’re going to force a special session, it’s their doing, not mine,” Dayton said.

Dayton said the spending level, agreed to by House and Senate leaders, isn’t high enough. He wants to add another $150 million on top of the $400 million increase proposed by legislative leaders.

Dayton said some of that increased funding should pay for half day universal pre-k for four-year-olds.

Despite the veto threat, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt and DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk say they’re moving ahead with the bill.

“We’re going to pass a bill out of the House and the Senate that’s going to go to the governor’s desk at a spending level of $400 million over base for K-12 education,” Daudt said. “What he decides to do with it after that I guess is up to him.”

Dayton said he had issues with other portions of the budget, so it’s difficult to tell whether he’ll veto one budget bill or several.

His administration hoped to engage the public to pressure Bakk and Daudt to change their minds. House Democrats signed a letter saying they’re siding with Dayton. The DFL Party sent an e-mail to 50,000 Minnesotans urging them to contact their legislators about universal pre-k.

Dayton’s administration also released a memo saying the lack of new funding would force the Department of Education to shut down and  lay off of 400 employees. They also said there would be no process to make payments to local schools.

“The consequences of not enacting an E-12 education budget bill would be catastrophic for or schools, our teachers and most importantly, our students,” wrote Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans.

Meanwhile, legislative conference committees reached agreements on other parts of the budget late Saturday.

A conference committee approved a budget bill that increases higher education spending by  $166 million. The bill provides $101 million more for the Minnesota State Colleges and University system and  $53 million more for the University of Minnesota, including $30 million for the medical school.

That is less than both systems requested and not enough to continue a tuition freeze for another two years.

House Higher Ed Committee Chair Republican Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said the committee did not split the funding equally between the institutions this year because he felt MnSCU needed more.

“We could starve both systems or provide the adequate funding for, in case this MnSCU, knowing the university is not short of students,” Nornes said.

Nornes said the bill would cut tuition over the next two years for two-year schools. There may be a tuition increase in the first year for MnSCU’s four year schools.

The bill does not provide free tuition to students enrolled in the state’s technical schools as the DFL-controlled Senate had sought. Instead of full funding, Senate Higher Education Chair Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said a $5 million pilot project will help prepare students  for high demand jobs.

“If you’re willing to go to technical school so that you can get trained this program will make up those dollars,” Bonoff said. “You can take your state grant, and we’ll fill in the rest as a scholarship.”

The bill also provides grant money to help businesses hire students out of high school in high demand jobs. The businesses would then help pay for their training.

The Legislature is also poised to pass a bare bones transportation bill. As a part of the budget agreement, legislative leaders ditched a $2 billion tax cut bill. and proposals that would fund transportation projects over several years. They dropped the long term transportation bill because Republicans disagreed with the Democrats’ desire to raise the gas tax to pay for it.

House Transportation Committee Chair Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said he thinks the increased attention on transportation will give the Legislature momentum to pass a bill next year.

“We would certainly like to be talking about a $7 billion transportation plan as opposed to a ‘lights on’ bill,” Kelly said. “When it comes around to next year, my guess is that we’ll have acceptance on a transportation plan that is serious.”

Conference committees dealing with agriculture and the environment and health and human services also worked late into the night on their budget plans.

Conferees tasked with dealing with health and human services were required to plug a $300 million budget gap. Instead of making cuts to programs, they used one-time money and payment shifts.

“There’s a lot of shifts in this bill that make the cut somewhat manageable,” said Senate Health and Human Services chair Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick.

Lourey said the bill makes significant investments in mental health and child protection. Republicans have also praised an increase of $138 million for nursing homes.

The plan also appoints a task force to study what to do with MinnesotaCare after its funding source dries up in 2019. Republicans dropped their plan to scrap the state subsidized insurance plan as a part of the budget deal.

The ag and environment conference committee defeated an amendment to allow the state to issue driver’s licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Supporters say the measure will make the roads safer. House Republicans on the committee said it did have enough support to pass in the House. They warned tat adopting the amendment could scuttle the entire budget bill.

“I know I am letting down people that I have spent years working with but we don’t have the votes,” said Rep. Dennis McNamara, R-Hastings.

The House may also not have the votes to pass a public works bill. The House Ways and Means Committee moved a bill out of committee that would borrow $100 million for public works projects. But the measure needs a super majority to pass. Democrats say they won’t support it because it doesn’t spend enough and they weren’t involved in budget talk, and Republicans don’t have enough votes to pass it by themselves.

Lawmakers are planning to hold a rare Sunday session to pass budget bills. They have to finish their work before midnight on Monday.

But if they don’t meet Dayton’s demands, it’s likely he’ll call them back into a special session. And it’s not clear where lawmakers would meet for a special session.

The state administration commissioner says construction crews are prepared to take over the Capitol on Tuesday morning to continue the ongoing renovation of the building.