Budget march begins with marathon debates

The Minnesota Senate went from morning until night Thursday debating and voting on an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink budget proposal, which would lock up $80 million of a projected surplus and keep far more than that available for a forthcoming tax-cut measure.

The sprawling, 579-page bill is the Republican Senate’s opening bid in negotiations that are ahead with the GOP-led House and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. A mix of money and policy, it covers everything from election administration to limitations on classroom political discussions to oil pipeline regulation to school safety.  After almost 12 hours of debate, the Senate bill passed on a 34-31 party-line vote.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said the bill won’t satisfy everyone but hits the high points.

“There’s a lot of things in there that everyone wants, including safe schools and addressing some of the opioid issues and MNLARS,” Gazelka said as debate wore down after dark. “So it’s a bill that you could find some good things in it if you want to.”

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, complained that the bill was too bulky. By lumping everything into one package, he said legislators and the public were denied the chance to have a full airing of law changes and spending proposals that could have a big impact.

“Some people talk about how this may be the last train out of the station,” he said mockingly. “Well this isn’t the last train. This may be the only train.”

Dozens of amendments were proposed but most were beat back. Democrats complained that Republicans were shortchanging pressing concerns, from state technology needs to public college system allowances.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, captured that side of the debate. She said higher education has limped through, battered by cuts when the state’s budget was in deficit territory and not replenished when times improved.

“When I was chair, we were in a recession,” said Pappas, a former higher education committee leader. “So, there were reasons why we couldn’t invest. But we aren’t in a recession any more. We should be trying to play catch up.”

Gazelka said the bill’s price-tag had to be held down to save at least half of a $329 million surplus for use toward a tax-cut measure. That bill will be released next week, and Gazelka’s caucus regards it as the centerpiece of the session.

Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said the two-year budget was set last year so this session’s work was meant mainly for touch-up.

Rosen described the budget package as “a modest spending proposal that mirrors the modest budget surplus identified in the February forecast. Decisions were made on priorities and initiatives accordingly.”

Democrats struck out in efforts to attach gun restrictions to the bill when they were ruled out of order, all but dooming them for the year. All Republicans and a few rural Democrats aligned to stop those amendments.

In the House, focus was on an education budget bill, touching on public instruction from preschool through college. It passed on a 94-29 vote.

Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said the package of several school safety proposals has been a priority this session.

“It’s not only physical upgrades to our buildings and security. But it is also support staff, mental health counseling, school support, social workers,” Loon said. “All of those things that help provide the school safety net, to make sure that children who are coming to school perhaps struggling with some kind of issue, some trauma, are not falling through the cracks.”

Dayton said he was pleased lawmakers followed many of his school safety proposals. But Dayton warned that several policy provisions that Republicans put into the larger bills could take the entire thing down.

“That’s the trouble with this approach of trying to layer various issues that are related somewhat or totally unrelated in together as a strategy to make me accept things I don’t agree or won’t support,” Dayton said. “I’ve said it again and again, if there’s something truly objectionable in a bill, I’m going to veto it.”

While the Senate combined its spending proposal into one bill, the House has broken its budget proposals into four bills, with the other three slated for votes next week. The House tax bill has also been lined up for a vote.

MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire contributed.