House GOP takes first turn in setting budget surplus plans
ST. PAUL — The Republican-controlled Minnesota House passed a spending package Monday for public schools and universities that includes some small increases without dipping into the state's $900 million budget surplus.
With an extra $55 million to boost recruiting efforts to improve teacher diversity and increase funding for some early learning programs, the House GOP's education spending plan shows the wide divide between Republicans and Gov. Mark Dayton and his fellow Democrats in control of the Senate. Democratic senators are planning a much broader package to expand preschool programming and tackle a counselor shortage.
The supplemental budget bill would appropriate no extra money to public colleges and universities beyond what was included in last year's two-year budget, though GOP lawmakers said they'll include tax credits for college students in a bill later this session.
The House plan is the first in a series of slim spending packages in that chamber, where legislative leaders have opted to save the surplus for tax relief and road and bridge repairs. It passed 84-46, with most Democrats voting against it.
Rather than use the state's leftover funds, the budget bill would drum up about $55 million by encouraging school districts across Minnesota to pay off old loans from the state and sell new bonds at a lower interest rate. About a quarter of that sum would go toward recruiting and retaining more teachers from racially diverse backgrounds, a long-standing concern in Minnesota, while also putting in extra money for a teacher loan forgiveness program. There's also funding to boost mental health services in schools and increase broadband Internet connectivity in rural pockets of the state.
"We put that money to really good use in a few key areas," said Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie.
The House package veers into a disputed topic, ordering a review of the University of Minnesota's use of fetal tissue in research and extra oversight by internal boards involved in the research.
Democrats in the House called it a missed opportunity, saying the Legislature should tap into the surplus to boost preschool options and extend a tuition freeze for Minnesota college students. Republicans repeatedly rejected Democrats' amendments that would have directed surplus money into loan refinancing programs for college students and grants to help colleges recruit and guide students of color through post-secondary education.
"We have the means to do that this year. I just wish that we had the political will," said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul.