Dayton Wants More For Pre-K; GOP Talks Education Hike, Human Services Cuts

By David Montgomery, St. Paul Pioneer Press

and Maureen McMullen, Forum News Service

Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday proposed putting more money into preschool education and the state’s reserves, at the same time that legislative Republicans are offering a budget with significant new tax cuts and spending cuts in some major areas of state government.

The DFL governor rolled out his budget in January but updated it Friday to account for last month’s stronger revenue forecast. He’s proposing to put $100 million of new money into preschool — and leave $200 million unspent, “recognizing the uncertainties regarding the federal budget and its implications for Minnesota.”

Meanwhile the Senate’s Republican majority put out the bare bones of its budget Friday: how much it wants to put into each major part of the budget. Besides cutting taxes, they propose increasing the share of the budget going to education and transportation — but $335 million less than projected for health and human services.

The House Republicans are expected to put out their own budget targets next week.

Dayton’s original budget calls for significant funding for education and social services. His update on Friday took his original $75 million preschool proposal and increased it by $100 million. All that money will go to help school districts off preschool programs.

Among other areas, the governor also increases spending on buffer strips along waterways, on a career-training program, on preparation for future avian flu outbreaks and on a six-month pilot project for rail service between St. Cloud and Minneapolis.

He also plans to add $500,000 in funding to help train future agriculture educators. The addition, Dayton said, comes at the urging of a Future Farmers of America student.

“I said I’d put money in my budget for it, but I forgot,” he said. “I’ve had this happen before. She called me on it when the Farmer’s Union came.”

The money will provide matching grants to school districts, most of which are rural, to pay for agricultural teachers.

The teachers would work with high school students over the summer grow season.

The current grant, totaling $250,000, will fund 43 programs and 63 teachers for this upcoming summer.

But he left a big chunk of the state’s expanded surplus unspent because of fears that Congress could cut funds currently going to Minnesota to pay for programs like Medical Assistance. He wants more money in reserve to handle those potential cuts.

“My number one priority for the session is fiscal integrity,” Dayton said.

Another major proposal Dayton’s offering is to spend $42 million to fight opioid abuse — money Dayton would raise with a fee on prescription pain medications. He would charge 1 cent per “morphine milligram equivalent” in a pain drug, so a 30 mg pill of oxycodone might cost an extra 45 cents.

The Senate Republicans want to increase school spending by $300 million and higher-ed money by $100 million over prior forecasts. Both figures are also increases over the last two-year budget, but less than Dayton is proposing.

They’re also setting more than $400 million from the general fund aside for roads and bridges. Dayton’s proposal would pay for transportation through new taxes and fees, rather than out of the existing budget.

Offsetting these increases, the Senate GOP wants to cut back several parts of the budget from the spending projections released last month. They’re proposing $40 million less for the environment and natural resources, and $30 million less for state government operations. The big cut is in health and human services, where the Senate GOP wants a $330 million reduction.

HHS has been the fastest growing part of Minnesota’s budget for decades and Republicans have repeatedly called to slow its growth. The state’s HHS budget would still be more than $2 billion above the last two-year budget in the Senate GOP proposal, but it would be less than if the Legislature changed nothing.