Sunday, April 30, 2017

Let the Games Begin!  Well, hardly games, but let's say gamesmanship.  The Legislature announced its budget targets on Friday and they are vastly different in terms of amounts and priorities than what the Governor proposed.  The big sticking point will be the amount of revenue the Legislature has earmarked for tax cuts, which is their top priority with a price tag of $1.15 billion.  The E-12 budget target comes in at $1.14 billion, but remember that includes the $884 million that is part of the biennium-to-biennium base increases which are automatic and stem from pupil growth, an increase in the special education base due to the inflator in the formula, and the full phase-in of the Long Term Facilities Maintenance Revenue Program.  From this calculation, it would appear that the "above base" budget target for the E-12 conference committee is $256 million, which is closer to the House target than the Senate's.  What this will mean in actual program changes is anyone's guess, but one cannot get to the 1.5% increase in each year of the coming biennium proposed in the Senate bill with this target without greatly reducing revenue from some other program.

The E-12 conference committee will be meeting tomorrow (Monday) at 3 PM and I would guess that the conference committee will conclude its work in the next day or so.  It is hoped that all of the budget and tax bills will reach the Governor by the end of the week for their likely veto.  If that is indeed the course of events, negotiations with the Governor will begin in earnest by the end of the week and if there is a stare-down, we may be at this beyond the May 22 constitutionally-mandated adjournment date for the regular session.

Here is a story from the House information web site regarding the legislative budget targets.  The article contains links to the press conferences by the majority and minority caucuses:

House, Senate agree to budget targets — now seek common ground with governor

Here is an MPR story that outlines the Governor's concerns over the size of the tax cut:

Politics Friday: Dayton says GOP plan cuts too much in taxes

The conference committee on the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board will begin its proceedings tomorrow (Monday) morning.  There is not a great deal of difference in the versions of the bill and that conference committee may wrap up its work with great dispatch.  One of the reasons (and this is conjecture, but a lot is conjecture at this point so I'm just joining the party) this bill is having a separate conference committee instead of being folded into the E-12 conference committee is that if there is a break down in the budget negotiations, this bill will still be able to pass and (hopefully) become law.

So, in the spirit of the upcoming chain of events, here's some inspiring music for some Olympic-sized negotiations.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Shifting Gears.  No meeting of the E-12 conference committee today, but there has been a bit of a change in how things will unfold from this point forward in the education realm.  HF 140/SF 4--the bill that would establish the Professional Educators Licensing and Standards Board--will now travel separately and will not be a part of the negotiations over the remainder of E-12 funding and policy.  The Senate had folded this legislation into its version of the omnibus E-12 funding and policy bill while the House did not.  Last week, the decision was made for the Senate to pass its version of the bill separately (the House had passed it last month).  There are enough differences in the bills so that there will be a conference committee that will likely begin its work next week.

The E-12 conference committee is slated to meet tomorrow at 1 PM in Room 200 of the State Office Building.

In other news, Representative Jenifer Loon, chair of the House Education Funding Committee, held a press conference today to tout the House's position on early childhood scholarships.

Here is the video of that press conference.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Race is On.  Conference committee season kicked off today and there was a lot of presentation of side-by-side comparisons between the House and Senate bills across a broad range of tax and budget areas.  The E-12 budget and conference committee included testimony from Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.  Her main messages were:  (1) the legislative budget target is way too low to provide Minnesota families and school districts what they need, and (2) the decision by the House to repeal the Governor's voluntary all-day pre-kindergarten program is unwise and would unfairly penalize those districts currently participating in the program.  It should make for a spirited discussion as the conference committee puts together its bill to send to the Governor.  It will be interesting to see if the Legislature sends bills to the Governor and have them meet a likely veto or begin their negotiations in earnest with the Governor prior to the bills reaching the legislative floor.

The tax committee did not take testimony, but made it through most of the side-by-side comparison.  The sheer size and scope of the tax bill requires a lot of time to present.

Both conference committees are slated to meet again tomorrow.  The E-12 conference committee will be discussing the teacher licensing changes that emanate from the legislative task force that met last summer while the tax conferees will continue working through their side-by-side comparison.

In keeping with today's title, here's the late great George Jones singing one of his biggest hits:

We Have Lift-Off.  The conference committees for the E-12 and Tax bills have been named and I'm relatively certain that the e-mail inboxes of the members named to these bodies are going to be chock full of messages for the next couple of weeks (including a few from me so I'm hoping their spam filter has been suitably relaxed).  It will likely be a hectic couple of weeks because I'm guessing that the Legislature would like to get all the spending bills to the Governor with at least two weeks left before the regular session's Constitutionally-mandated adjournment date of May 22.

Here are the members of each of the conference committees.  I have made their name into a hyperlink that connects to their legislative page, which includes contact information.

HF 890--Omnibus E-12 Funding and Policy Bill

House Members

Senate Members

HF 4--Omnibus Tax Bill

House Members

Senate Members

And so, we have lift-off.  I'll be in my orbiter circling both of these conference committees.  I urge all SEE members to contact the members of these conference committees with polite messages supporting education funding adequacy and taxpayer fairness.  

Monday, April 17, 2017

Legislature Returns.  After a ten-day break, the Legislature will be returning to St. Paul tomorrow and it promises to be a hectic couple of weeks as conference committees will be appointed and convened for the tax bill and all of the budget bills.  It will be interesting to see how long it takes to wrap up the conference committees seeing that there isn't that much difference in the budget targets between the House and the Senate.  I don't have any inside information, but from my vantage point, I think the Legislature would like to get its bills to the Governor by May 1 because it is expected the Governor will be sending most of them back with a veto message attached.  Here's an article from the Minnesota Public Radio web page that provides some insight that would back up that impression.  

Commissioners Set Stakes for Upcoming Budget Battle

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Sit back and enjoy a little bit of Gene Autry with one of his greatest hits (No, not Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) to celebrate the Legislature's return to the saddle.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Governor Goes on Offensive.  In what may well be harbinger of what will be happening for the next month, Governor Dayton released a set of comparative spreadsheets comparing his budget for E-12 education with what has been passed in the Legislature.  Clearly, the revenue going to school districts is much more in the Governor's budget given that his target is more than twice that of either of the legislative targets.  

Neither the House nor Senate named their conferees for the Tax Bill and E-12 budget bill today, but with the Governor's weighing in today on his education budget and the difference between it and what the legislature is considering, it's obvious negotiations are underway.

Here are the links to the information that Governor sent out today:

Funding by District Comparison

Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Comparison

Governor's Debt Service Equalization

Interactive Map Showing Revenue and Tax Relief Under Governor's Budget

The Legislature will counter the Governor's parry with information of their own and it is likely that the budget target will come up as the session continues, so stay tuned.  Things will undoubtedly get interesting.

Teacher Licensing Article.   This article was in today's edition of MinnPost and it provides a good summary of the effort.  The House passed its version of the bill on the floor today on a vote of 76-55, with one DFLer voting for and one Republican voting against.

Here is the article:  Lawmakers Fine-tune Proposed Overhaul of Teacher Licensing in Minnesota

National Charter/Testing Debate.  It hasn't really shown up in Minnesota yet this year, but with the change in administrations at the Federal level, there's been a lot more talk about charter school performance and testing policy.  Minnesota has hashed out a lot of the issues pertaining to charter schools that seem to be at the heart of much of the national debate, but that doesn't mean that some of the issues relating to testing won't take on increasing attention in the near future, especially in light of the recently-released Legislative Auditor's report on Minnesota's MCA testing.

The left-of-center The American Prospect has been following education policy debates closely the past couple of years and this article about how charter school and testing issues are currently playing out in Maryland.

Maryland Showdown on Testing, Charters, and the Direction of Public Schools

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Whirlwind Days.  The education funding and tax bills are off the floor in both the House and the Senate.  Last Friday, the House passed the omnibus education funding and policy bill on a vote of 75-54 with one DFLer voting in favor and no Republicans voting against.  The debate on the House floor took about two hours and wasn't as acrimonious as I expected.  There weren't many amendments.  Part of that is likely due to the small target, which it makes it difficult to move money around in the bill without taking it out of the basic formula.  You may recall that last week the House lowered the annual basic formula increase from 1.5% to 1.25% to move money into school readiness to help those districts that are currently participating in the voluntary pre-kindergarten program a soft landing as the program is repealed.  The DFLers were likely reluctant to move any further dollars out of that program and into anything else.  I should also mention that $11 million was moved into the bill in the Ways and Means Committee to pay for improvements to the transportation sparsity formula.

The discussion of the omnibus education bill took a little longer in the Senate, logging in at about four hours.  As was the case in the House, there were no major amendments added to the bill, which passed on a vote of 38-28 (four DFLers supported the bill).

Both the House and Senate omnibus education bills are less than half of what the Governor has requested.  The Legislature has set its sites on a big tax cut package and in order to do that, they have had to keep spending in the various areas below the Governor's recommendations.  Add to that, the recently-passed and soon-to-become-law health coverage reinsurance plan will take $542 million off the bottom line for the biennium which will make end-of-session negotiations very tight.  That said, here's hoping that more will be added to the E-12 budget target and we can get back to the 2% annual increases that the Governor recommended and some additional assistance with solving the TRA funding problem.  It will be important for the education community to speak loudly and with a unified voice to get the target where it needs to be.

It was on the Senate tax bill that things got exciting.  Senator Matt Klein offered an amendment that would spend $29 million annually on referendum equalization by raising the equalizing factors on the first and second tiers.  At that point, Senator Carla Nelson moved to amend the amendment, designating the source of the revenue needed to fund the amendment as local government aid for the city of Minneapolis.  That obviously picked a scab and the amendment to the amendment passed by a one vote margin on a straight party-line vote with all DFLers in opposition.  The amendment then passed on a 35-32 vote, with three DFLers voting in favor and two Republicans voting against.

The bottom line is that there are now at least place holders for both referendum and debt service equalization in the Senate tax bill.  The House has no such provisions, but the Governor does have debt service equalization in his tax recommendations, so equalization is in play and that's all one can ask for.