ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature will press Gov. Dayton to go along with their budget blueprint in the final three weeks of the 2017 session, but several of their major bills contain items Dayton has vowed to veto.
House and Senate Republican leaders announced they've reached agreement on budget targets in the major segments of the two-year budget that pays for state government operations from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2019. Those sectors include education, health and human services, higher education, public safety, agriculture and state government.
"Without a doubt we’re going to fight for each of these targets," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka told reporters. "We want the governor to engage, and he’s going to push back without a doubt."
The single largest change over the current biennium is a plan to shift $372 million away from the General Fund, and dedicate it exclusively to roads and bridges for the FY2018-2019 period.
General Fund money is currently used for schools, health care for low income elderly and persons with disabilities, and other non-transportation uses.
Sen. Scott Dibble, the Minneapolis Democrat who formerly chaired the transportation committee, said that $372 million over two years will barely keep up with basic maintenance needs, let alone replacing dangerous roads and intersections.
"This budget is leaving Minnesotans abandoned," Sen. Dibble remarked.
Another budget category is for tax relief, which is considered a form of spending because the state agrees to forego revenue that was anticipated in the original budget forecast earlier in the year. The Republican joint budget targets feature $1.15 billion in targeted tax cuts.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook said Republicans should abandon the tax package, because it drains too much of the state's projected $1.6 billion surplus and faces a sure veto by the governor.
"I don’t want to use the word ‘fake’ because that’s Donald Trump’s word, but it’s friggin’ phony!," Sen. Bakk asserted.
He said the Republican numbers are off base because they relied on spending levels approved in 2015 for the current biennium, instead of actual spending that has happened in the current budget cycle.
Sen. Gazelka said he will press Myron Frans, the state's budget commissioner, to find more savings in the Health and Human Services budget than is currently projected.
DFL leaders say Republicans, by seeking cutbacks in some areas -- such as Metro Transit and the Dept. of Revenue -- are budgeting as if the state faces a deficit rather than a surplus.
But Gazelka pointed out that the state spent $300 million to provide health care premium discounts for those in the individual (non group) insurance markets. And they've also spent $542 million on the reinsurance program to help insurance carriers cover the cost of the most ill, most expensive customers in 2018.
Another point of contention is that some of the budget bills include policy changes in addition to appropriations, policies such as requiring the Dept. of Corrections to buy the shuttered private prison in Appleton. Another policy change would make it a gross misdemeanor to block a highway.
Gov. Dayton has denounced the idea that he's expected to accept policy he disagrees with in order to pay for basic operations of the court system and state patrol.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt said the governor is being unrealistic to expect budget bills that are free of policy changes.
"There has been policy in every budget bill in the history of the world. I don’t think I’m overstating that even," Rep. Daudt told reporters.
The bonding bill hasn't been released yet, and it doesn't have to pass this year for lawmakers to avoid a government shutdown. But there's growing pressure to pass a bonding bill, because the 2016 bill faltered in the closing minutes of last session.
Daudt said the bonding bill will be capped at $800 million, including $200 million in target road construction projects.
Democrats argue that road construction should be in a transportation bill, using dedicated funds. But Republicans say they're trying to get money to needed projects more quickly.
Raising the gas tax to boost highway spending, and idea supported by Dayton, is off the table for the foreseeable future in the Republican controlled legislature.
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