By Don Davis
Much of the money in the Minnesota House’s plan to tweak the state’s two-year budget would go to greater Minnesota.
“We focused on rural Minnesota and greater Minnesota,” House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said, because many rural parts of the state have not recovered from the recession as well as the Twin Cities.
The House passed the bill 70-59 late Thursday to add $322 million to the $39 billion, two-year state budget enacted last year.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the budget plan is one “Democrats are pushing like drugs on the House floor. They can’t spend enough.”
Provisions aimed at areas outside the Twin Cities include those giving a 5 percent increase to home health care providers, pumping more into rural nursing homes that pay employees $14 an hour or less, adding money to elderly meal programs that mostly serve rural Minnesotans, setting up grants to develop high-speed Internet connections, putting $6 million more into greater Minnesota economic development efforts, increasing spending more for highway repairs and creating a center to fight invasive plants and animals moving into the state.
When they were briefing the media on the budget bill, Democratic House Speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis and Murphy Paul frequently pointed out items that would help rural or greater Minnesota.
For instance, they said, in approving $25 million for broadband Internet improvements, a fraction of what supporters wanted, businesses in areas of slow Internet coverage could become competitive with places that enjoy faster service.
“Expanded access to broadband Internet access is critical for greater Minnesota,” said Rep. Erik Simonson, D-Duluth. “If we want businesses to set up shop and expand in our communities, we need to provide them the resources they need in order to be successful. But in many areas of the state, high-speed Internet access just isn’t an option.”
Murphy denied that the rural emphasis is an attempt to improve Democratic chances in this year’s elections. At least seven rural House districts now held by Democrats are considered to be in play this year.
Overall, the bill divides the $322 million it spends several ways:
— $92 million for education, including raising public school funding $58 per pupil, adding money to school lunch programs and reducing special education paperwork.
— $91 million to health needs, including increasing funds 5 percent for care providers who serve patients at home, raising rural nursing home payments and assisting mostly rural elderly meal programs.
— $37 million for economic development, including the broadband grants and $6 million for six greater Minnesota economic development programs.
— $50 million for transportation, half of which would go to fill potholes after a winter that has been tough on roads.
— $36 million for public safety, especially sending more to the Corrections Department.
— $16 million for agriculture and the environment to fight invasive species moving into Minnesota and help fund locally grown food for food shelves.
The Senate Finance Committee plans to finish its budget proposal today. It could come up for debate early next week.
Added money for home health care providers follows last year’s 5 percent increase in nursing home funding.
Rep. Tom Huntley, D-Duluth, said funds for rural nursing homes need to increase because the expected passage of a $9.50-an-hour minimum wage would affect them since many workers do not receive the minimum wage.
Some new money the Corrections Department would receive is to pay county jails to house up to 500 prisoners. Rep. Michael Paymar, D-St. Paul, said the department underestimated the number of prisoners it would house this year.
As a snowstorm headed toward St. Paul, Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said his transportation funding provisions include $15 million to help local governments fill potholes after a rough winter, with another $10 million destined for the state to do the same.
Hornstein’s bill also provides $10 million for the Corridors of Commerce highway repair program that mostly would go to greater Minnesota roads.
Also in the bill is a provision to increase an assessment on railroads and add one on pipelines to fund $2.5 million worth of more training that first responders such as firefighters need to battle crude oil accidents.
The House voted to ban state funds for abortions and to prohibit an abortion of a fetus more than 20 weeks old. Most of the nearly 100 amendment proposals were rejected.
Republicans repeatedly tried to pass amendments to change the MNsure health insurance exchange, but Democrats would not allow most to be debated.