Monday, March 17, 2008

Don't Blog for a Day (Shame on Me). Don't blog for a week. I think I need an oil tanker to carry that much "shame on me." Seriously, there was a ton going on last week that I didn't take the time to report and I apologize for that. I'm lucky I'm Scandinavian and can haul around more shame than a 20-Mule Team (as in 20-Mule Team Borax).

Last week marked the lead-up to the first policy committee deadline. Like a Napoleonic army slogging toward Moscow, the policy committees in both the House and Senate worked to get as many bills as possible heard before Friday, March 14. Committees worked into the evening and most every legislator who requested a hearing received one.

An interesting observation for someone who has spent considerable time working around the Legislature is the changing role of the committee chair. Back in the day (pull up a seat next to the cracker barrel and we can set to whittlin'), committee chairs served as filters for which bills the committee would hear. For about the past dozen years, most anyone requesting a hearing receives one, but prior to that, the most important meeting a lobbyist would have involving his client was a meeting with the applicable committee chair to convince the chair that the bill merited attention at the committee level. Often, committee chairs had an idea of where they wanted to committee to go in terms of policy and bills that were not in the direction of the committee chair's intentions simply weren't heard. Authors often converted unheard bills into amendments for later in the session, but committee time was generally devoted toward going deeper into a limited number of concepts as opposed to covering the entire spectrum of educational thought. Both approaches have their strengths, but hearing almost every bill certainly does take a lot of time and takes a toll on the legislative energy level.

Two committees that logged a lot of seat time were the House and Senate Education Policy Committees. On Wednesday, March 12, the Senate Education Committee went approximately 7-and-a-half hours straight (save for a 10 minute break) to go over a multitude of bills, including the Senate Education Policy omnibus bill. On the left, Senate Education Policy Committee Chair Chuck Wiger (furthest to the right) confers with Senator Sandy Rummel as Senator LeRoy Stumpf looks on during the marathon committee meeting. Some of the items in the Senate omnibus education policy bill include revisions to the state report card, changes to the current referendum ballot question that make it clear that a district seeking to simply renew a levy at the previously approved amount is not seeking a tax increase, and the Minnesota's Promise framework developed by the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

The House Education Committee also held a series of hearings (none of which lasted 7-and-a-half hours) to both cover remaining bills and unveil their omnibus education policy bill. House bill provisions include proposed changes to the report card similar to those in the Senate bill, correction of the conflict-of-interest interpretation prohibiting spouses of public school employees from serving on a school board, and statewide technology standards.

Links to the current omnibus policy bill engrossments (versions):

HF 3316:

SF 3001:

It Wasn't Just the Policy Committees.
Both the House and Senate education funding committees met as well, with the House K-12 Funding Committee putting in a bit of overtime on Friday to hear a slate of bills. Included among those bills was HF 3733 (S. Peterson), a bill that clarifies and provides oversight to the state alternative compensation program. Shown providing testimony for Representative Peterson's bill in the picture at the right was Chisago Lakes teacher Teri Hansen (on the left). One of the frustrations with the state alternative compensation system is the relative inconsistency supposedly shown in the acceptance of proposals in the alternative compensation system. HF 3733 would seek to bring greater consistency by creating a board to review successful and unsuccessful proposals on a periodic basis in an attempt to promote greater commonality among bargaining units seeking entrance into the program.

The deadline for the funding bills is Friday, March 28, which will make next week an extremely busy one indeed.

Regional Meetings Wrapped Up. Our string of spring regional meetings finished on Friday, March 14, with a meeting in Isanti. Like the rest of the regional meetings, it was spirited and provided quite a bit of insight as to where the organization wants to head as we continue through the legislative session. I hope membership enjoys the regional meetings as much as I do. I have always felt that the free-flowing discussion at the regional meetings gives people a chance to gain a better understanding of what the legislature is trying to do and have the opportunity to ask how many of these proposals affect their own districts.

Another aspect of the regional meetings that is so valuable is the opportunity to talk about issues that affect education but are not before the legislature. One issue we talked about in detail at the Isanti regional meeting was that of home foreclosures and how falling home values may not be something that simply turns around quickly. A number of counties with heavy representation in SEE rank among the highest in terms of foreclosure statistics as a percentage of homes. Isanti, Sherburne, Mille Lacs, and Kanabec counties lead the state with percentages above 2.0%. Wright, Chisago, Pine, and LeSeuer counties all have foreclosure rates between 1.5% and 2.0%.

The foreclosure issue--and it needs to be stressed that this is not all due to sub-prime mortgages--is causing a lot of stress in exurban counties. How it came to this is anyone's guess, but it is going to have an effect, both in financial and attitudinal terms in the years ahead.

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