Monday, April 25, 2011

We Are Now Starting the Bell Lap. I ran high school track. I was a reasonably good quarter-miler and was a decent 220 man. But once or twice a year, my high school track coach would get this sadistic idea that I would best serve the team's interest if I ran the mile (an idea that would be proven wrong on an annual basis). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the nuances of track, the final lap of any race is the "bell" (or "gun") lap because when the lead runner starts the last lap, the official will ring a bell (or shoot a gun--a starting gun--no conceal and carry permit needed) to inform the fans that it's time to pay attention because the next time the runners come around, the race will be finishing.

Why this story, you ask? We are now starting the bell lap of the legislative session. It's been an interesting race to this point, but four weeks from today the regular session is slated to end and--as a lot of track fans out there know--there's a lot of jockeying for position and strategy that takes place in that final lap.

At this point, I have a difficult time believing that the session will be wrapped up by the constitutionally-mandated adjournment date of Monday, May 23 at 11:59:59 PM. There's just too much to cover in too short a time. A story in Saturday's StarTribune reported that the Governor is having on-going breakfast meetings with legislative leadership and while there appears to be a greater understanding of what has yet to be surmounted, there is little indication that either side is ready to budge. Of course, willingness to budge (on both sides) will likely increase as the clock ticks louder, but we are going to need to close a $5 billion (slightly less than $4 billion when the education funding shift is taken into account and all sides appear to agree that will be done) in a month and that is going to require either a general tax increase (which the Legislature is resisting) or deeper cuts to the Human Services budget than the Governor appears willing to swallow.

As I have reported several times, I thought the Legislature would have sent a raft of budget proposals to the Governor and force him to veto them in order to firm up their position going into the final negotiations, but that strategy never materialized and the Legislature now appears to be keeping the remaining conference committees open and will negotiate with the Governor on the issues before these committees throughout the remainder of the session. Conference committees will begin meeting again these week. I will keep you posted.

Policy Up Next. When the Legislature returns tomorrow, policy committees in both the House and Senate will be picking up the baton and sprinting (yet another track analogy) until the policy committee deadline of May 6. Both the House and Senate have a considerable number of policy initiatives in their omnibus budget bills and it's unclear whether those provisions will remain in the realm of the omnibus education funding conference committee or if the policy provisions will be transferred into an omnibus education policy bill. At any rate, there are a number of education policy measures that remain to be heard, including the Minnesota Department of Education's policy bill, which is largely populated with non-controversial housekeeping measures. There will also be discussion of special education mandates, especially those Minnesota provisions that go beyond federal statute and rule. I will keep you posted on the progress of these meetings and whether the bills heard at the committee level will proceed on their own through the process or be folded into a larger omnibus education policy bill.

Important Visitor Coming to Minnesota Tomorrow. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush will be visiting Minnesota yesterday as a guest of the Minnesota Business Partnership to discuss some of the reforms enacted during his tenure as Florida's Governor. The Legislature has been somewhat obsessed with Florida since the publishing of a column in the StarTribune by Katherine Kersten outlining some of the measures enacted in Florida over the past fifteen years to boost student achievement. There is no question that what Florida has accomplished in terms of closing the achievement gap, but Florida's graduation rate is still among the lowest in the nation. I will be interested to hear Governor Bush's comments and to see whether they have any effect on the legislative proceedings as the session winds down.

Policy Up Next.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Quick Conference Committee Update. The conference committee has met twice, opening its deliberations on Tuesday, April 12. The Senate named its conferees on Monday after a slight delay in the process. The Senate conferees are: Senate Education Chair Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista), Senate Education Vice-Chair Carla Nelson (R-Rochester), Senator Dave Thompson (R-Lakeville), Senator Benjamin Kruse (R-Brooklyn Park) and Senator Pam Wolf (R-Spring Lake Park).

Both conference committee meetings were relatively short, with neither going two hours. To this point, the proceedings have all been dedicated to going through the bills and describing where they are similar or different. Fiscal staff also went through the budget appropriations and levy sheets.

The session has taken a bit of a different turn. When the session began, I thought the new Republican-controlled Legislature would pass the budget bills early and get them on Governor Dayton's desk by April 15. I guess I was channeling my long-languishing "inner political hack" and those muscles have atrophied to a great extent. It just seemed that with the Republicans adamantly stating that their budget solution would contain no tax increases, that the April 15 tax filing deadline appeared to be great day to make a point by putting a stack of appropriations bills on the Governor's desk and saying something to the effect: "Minnesotans are filing their taxes today and they are taxed enough. We are putting these bills on the Governor's desk in a way that does not raise taxes to make sure we don't become more uncompetitive when it comes to taxation."

But then something happened and the legislative majorities changed their strategy. The pace has changed and the conference committee chairs in both houses have decided to keep the conference committee process open for input from the Governor. There hasn't been much input yet, but once the Legislature returns from its break for the spring religious holidays on April 26, I expect the process will accelerate a bit.

One stumbling block has been the Governor Dayton's insistence that the budget solution be done in a comprehensive manner and not with a piece-meal approach. He hasn't described what exactly a comprehensive approach looks like, but it's my guess that he wants to balance revenue and expenditures at once, set the various budget area targets, and work toward a final package of appropriations bills.

Below is a MinnPost story from earlier this week outlining Republican leadership's outline of how they believe the conference committee process will unfold:

History Standards Review. I came across a brief article in The Economist about a month ago talking about the importance of teaching history to high school students. I can't link the article because it is copyrighted material that requires a subscription to view, but the article contained a reference to a report from the Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, in which 28 states received either a "D" or an "F" for their grade. Minnesota got to average with a "C" and the review of the standards contains some interesting, if not entirely unexpected, comments.

Links to individual state reviews are midway down the page.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Eye of the Hurricane. It's kind of slow on the education front at the Legislature these days. The Senate passed the Education bill after a long floor session last Thursday and sent it back to the House, where the House refused to concur with the Senate amendments. As a result, the House asked for a conference committee (Senate accepted request) and has named its conferees. The Senate has yet to name its conferees and thus, the conference committee has yet to begin its work.

One reason for the delay is that both the House and Senate have been extremely busy on their respective floors dealing with the remaining omnibus budget bills. As fast as things have been transpiring, I thought that the conference committees would have jumped into action and finished their work by April 15. The Legislature is breaking for the spring religious holidays (Passover and Christian Holy Week) Tuesday, April 18, and I thought legislative leadership would make every effort--and they still might--to put all off their budget and tax bills on the Governor's desk by Tax Day (the press conference possibility just seems too obvious). It is still possible to achieve this, but things are going to have to move fast and, at least from my vantage point, there are enough differences in the versions of the House and Senate bills that likely preclude the bills being reconciled with dispatch.

The House conferees are: House Education Funding Chair Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), House Education Policy Chair Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), Representative Tim Kelly (R-Red Wing), Representative Connie Doepke (R-Wayzata), and Representative Randy Fabian (R-Roseau). Senate conferees are likely to be named by the end of the week and I'll let you know when they are named.

Side-by-Side Comparison of Senate and House Bills Available. Every year, legislative staff prepares a side-by-side comparison of each bill that goes into conference committee, showing where the bills differ. The side-by-side comparison for HF 934/SF 1030 is now available and posted at this link: