Thursday, April 25, 2013

Senate Passes Omnibus Education Funding Bill.  It took about nine hours, with 33 amendments offered and debated (7 adopted), and a kerfuffle during the roll call vote, but the Senate passed the omnibus education funding bill on a vote of 35-28.  No Republican legislators voted for the bill and 3 DFLers voted against it.

The main objections to the bill come from those who believe the GRAD test (or some test with a "cut score")   needs to be retained instead of being replaced with the work of the assessment working group convened by the Minnesota Department of Education last summer.  If the Republicans in both the House and Senate have settled on an issue to attack the DFL approach to education this session, it appears that it will be the proposed changes in the student assessment system.

The other issue that was targeted by the Republicans was the proposed re-establishment of the general education levy.  Several amendments were aimed at either protecting businesses from the re-implementation of the general education levy.  Another angle taken by the Republicans in the criticism of this portion of the bill revolved around the question of why this subject is being handled in the omnibus education funding bill and not in the tax bill.  Of course, as I reported yesterday, there is significant education funding in the tax bill and the cross-pollination of tax policy and education funding policy between the two bills is puzzling (at least at this stage of the debate).

Another set of amendments was aimed at the decision to delay the implementation of the teacher evaluation process passed in 2011 by one year into next biennium, when funding for the program will also be made available under this bill.  Senator Branden Petersen, chief author of the teacher evaluation bill while serving in the House of Representatives last biennium, offered an amendment that would keep implementation on the schedule adopted in 2011.  He also offered an amendment that would have eliminated the practice of "last in/first out."   As in the case of the teacher evaluation process, Petersen was the chief author of that measure.  If you recall, that was passed by the Legislature but vetoed by the Governor.  These measures, like nearly every Republican amendment, went to the legislative graveyard today.

The kerfuffle I mentioned earlier in this piece came as the final vote was being taken.  Senator Chuck Wiger, the chief author of this year's omnibus education funding bill, gave an impassioned speech both urging support and answering Republican criticism as the debate was winding down.  It is generally the tradition that the speech of the chief author is the final speech given.  Because Senator Wiger's speech hit on several points raised by particular Republican legislators, those individual legislators wanted to respond to Senator Wiger's comments.  Instead of recognizing those Senators (which may have been simply an oversight), the presiding officer called for the vote to commence.  Because debate cannot continue during a vote, the legislators who wanted to speak took umbrage with the presiding officer.  For awhile, it appeared that the entire Republican caucus would boycott the vote, but because the Senate was "under call," all Senators present must vote unless they are excused from voting.  The vote took a bit longer to execute, but after a brief delay, all Republicans who were present voted (and all voted against the bill).  Just an interesting way to finish nearly nine hours of debate and discussion.

The bill will now be sent back to the House--it is important to remember that from this point forward the omnibus education funding bill will be HF 630--where the House will move to not concur with the amendments placed on the bill by the Senate (which is in effect the Senate substituting its version of the bill for the House version).  That will result in the naming of conferees in both the House and Senate with that decision being announced tomorrow.  The respective staffs in the House and Senate will likely spend their weekend putting together analysis of each bill and side-by-side documents comparing the two bills with the conference committee beginning to meet formally next week.  It is almost the first of May (I couldn't believe it when I looked at the calendar), which leaves us just three weeks before the Legislature must adjourn.

There are a lot of differences in the overarching approaches taken by the House and Senate, but there really isn't a lot of difference in the major initiatives undertaken in each bill.  Both bills have voluntary all-day kindergarten, have stressed the basic formula over the special education formula, and contain the changes to the assessment process.  The big difference is in the overall budget target and the fact that the Senate has put so much property tax relief in their education funding bill.  In other words, once the overall budget targets are set, there probably isn't that much to fight about and the negotiations should be relatively smooth.  There is a rumor that the Governor is going to push hard for money to go into his proposed special education changes and that could complicate things, but that is merely a rumor at this point.

The Senate is taking up the omnibus education policy bill tomorrow.  Unlike the House, the Senate is passing its funding and policy bills separately.  How that works when conference committee commences will be interesting.

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