Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tuesday's Committee Action.  The education-related hearings featured some big-time action on Tuesday, as all three committees handled interesting issues.  I spent the morning in the Senate Education Finance Committee, where I testified on SF 489 and SF 490, Senator Dahle's bills focused on increasing debt service equalization that complete the set of recommendations from the Minnesota Department of Education's School Facilities Finance Working Group.  Senator Dahle's SF 75 and SF 76, which deal with the deferred maintenance and technology portions of those recommendations, were heard earlier in the legislative session.  I was joined at the witness table by Tri-City United Superintendent Teri Preisler and she did an excellent job representing both SEE and her district and pointing out why increased debt service equalization would promote both improved school facilities and tax fairness in improving those facilities.  Committees love to hear from people involved in the nuts-and-bolts of school decisions and Teri gave the committee members a solid and detailed synopsis of the decisions made in the Tri-City United District, which was formed through the consolidation of the LeCenter and Montgomery-Lonsdale school districts almost three years ago.  Consolidations can be a challenge and Tri-City United has come through with flying colors.  That said, the district--like most districts--has facility needs and addressing those needs will likely include a commitment to both new construction and increased deferred maintenance.  I want to thank Senator Dahle for introducing each of the School Facilities Finance Working Group recommendations.  He has done it in a way that makes a lot of sense, as it shows that the recommendations are separable with each addressing a different aspect of the facilities challenge facing school districts throughout Minnesota.  The Senate has made facilities upgrades one of their top education priorities, which is great to see.  The gap in districts' ability to address their facility needs in a fair and equitable manner is very real and is clearly an equity issue.  Hopefully, the Education Finance Committee can coordinate its work with the Tax Committee and a system can be devised that provides both needed revenue and an element of property tax fairness to solve the facility issue.

The House Education Innovation Policy Committee dealt with the Education Tax Credit that Minnesota families can employ to defray a number of supplemental expenses.  HF 798, a bill introduced by Representative Jim Knoblach, would increase both the Minnesota tax deduction for tuition payments and expand the tax credit to include tuition payments.  One of the great fights of the early Carlson administration era in the 1990s was the scuffle over whether or not tuition payments should be eligible for the tax credit.  Opponents of expanding the tax credit to include these expenditures won that bout and the issue has largely lay dormant since.  I wouldn't be surprised if all that changed this year with the House of Representatives pushing aggressively to expand the tax credit.  Other bills heard in the House this morning included:

  • HF 72--Representative Paul Anderson's bill that would make pre-kindergarten expenditures eligible for the education tax credit,
  • HF 245--Representative Dean Urdahl's bill that would allow a tax credit for teachers who work toward a Masters' Degree in their licensure field area,
  • HF 359--Representative Linda Runbeck's bill that would make the reading tax credit passed in 2014 permanent and revise some of the procedures surrounding the bill, and,
  • HF 667--Representative Paul Anderson's bill that would increase the amount of the education tax credit, but not expand the definition of allowable expenditures.
The House Education Finance Committee heard HF 2, Representative Jenifer Loon's comprehensive teacher licensure and evaluation bill.  Like the hearing last week in the House Education Innovation Policy Committee, the debate was spirited between the two schools of thought that surround the bill.  The primary complaint coming from opponents of the portion of the bill that would allow school districts to make lay-off decisions without considering seniority is that it will lead to long and involved lawsuits.  I don't doubt that will happen, but I don't necessarily think lawsuits are a bad thing when a new system is being established.  The parameters of any new law need to be defined and sometimes that takes a lawsuit to accomplish.  Whether or not there would be a raft of lawsuits affecting nearly every district is another matter entirely and the chances of a plethora of lawsuits would likely be determined as to how the Teacher Development and Evaluation matrices would be negotiated in each school district.  HF 2 passed the committee on a vote of 13-8 and will now head to the floor of the House.  That is a bit of a surprise to me.  I thought the bulk of HF 2 would be folded into the House Omnibus Education Bill (and it still may be), but the House appears intent on passing the bill and sending it to the Senate.  The Senate will be considering this issue, but the bill that will most likely be considered is SF 97, Senator Bonoff's bill on the subject matter.  SF 97 is not the direct companion to HF2 (SF 473 authored by Senator Eric Pratt is), which makes matching things up a bit of a challenge.  The script has yet to be written, but I think this issue will be there right until the very end of the 2015 session.

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