Pick a number — any number — between zero and, say, 42.497 billion. OK, now: Is that the same number the legislative finance committee chairs, the bill authors and caucus leaders were thinking of? How about the governor?
Such questions have arisen in the wake of a controversy over Republicans’ major education reform bill this session. Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, was prepared to pass her bill off the House floor last week, only to have a late-arriving fiscal analysis stop the proposal in its tracks.
Both Loon and Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, criticized the fiscal note from Minnesota Management and Budget, citing both its timing and its math, which estimated that Loon’s bill would come at a cost approaching $1 million. The figure forced the bill back to the Ways and Means panel, which subsequently reviewed and passed it on Monday.
By that time, Knoblach had taken a more conciliatory tone, acknowledging that the request for a fiscal note had been relatively tardy and that staff with MMB and affected state agencies — namely, the Department of Education and the board of teaching — had come in on time with their findings.
The clearing of that hurdle sets the bill up for another appearance on the House floor, where, undoubtedly, critics will attack its effect rather than its cost. Loon’s proposal would make it easier to hire teachers from out-of-state, or from professional, non-educational backgrounds. More divisive is its provision to require that school districts incorporate teacher performance ratings in layoff decisions.
The House controversy was not lost on Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, the Senate author of a companion bill to Loon’s. Bonoff’s bill contains the teacher layoff element and lacks the licensure piece. But she still put in a request for her bill to be analyzed and said she was awaiting the result.
“I certainly took note of what happened in the House, and I’m being proactive,” said Bonoff.
Bonoff said her own bill, which has two Republican co-authors and, on paper, no DFL support, has been booked for a March 12 hearing in the Senate Education Committee. She is aware of the long odds against its passage in the DFL-controlled Senate, but she said she was hopeful that, as a “priority issue” for House Republicans, the layoff change could be preserved in a conference committee.
That would leave Bonoff the task of finding enough supporters, either within her own caucus or on the GOP side, to pass the bill in that form.
“I’ve been working at it since 2008,” Bonoff said. “I have my short list [of senators], and I’m always working on that.”
For the moment, though, the episode has launched a sidebar conversation about just how the state arrives at its fiscal estimates.
Much of the House Ways and Means Committee hearing was devoted to the topic of requests — the financial threshold, agency handling, and the occasional issuance of revised notes, as happens when legislators and nonpartisan staff ask MMB to take a second pass at a budget estimates. Knoblach explained that, time permitting, he would have liked to ask MMB to reconsider its initial finding, but said there wasn’t time before the bill was due on the House floor.
Bill Marx, chief fiscal analyst for the House, guessed that as many as 10 percent of the fiscal notes issued are eventually challenged in some way, and he observed that one note had already been revised this session.
“It doesn’t happen on a lot of them,” Marx told legislators, “but it’s not unusual.”
As Knoblach pointed out after the hearing, the House’s own nonpartisan expert had issued a memo disagreeing with MMB’s analysis and suggesting that Loon’s bill could fit within existing agency budgets after all. Knoblach said the scenario was “very unusual” and asked the House staffer to lead a walkthrough of her memo during Monday’s hearing; the MMB analyst who wrote the now-controversial fiscal note was called away for jury duty and could not testify.
After some debate, and the bill’s passage, Knoblach thanked members for what he termed a “good discussion” about the issue. It seems that discussion might be just getting started. A bill introduced on Monday — the first full legislative day after the dust-up over House File 2 — would see the creation of a new “Legislative Budget Office,” which would take over the preparation of fiscal notes.
That bill’s authors? House Speaker Kurt Daudt and House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin have the lower-chamber version, while Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk authored its Senate companion.
In that proposal’s language, both the House and Senate would rely on the new office to produce “nonpartisan, accurate and timely information … without regard to political factors.” The budget office’s director and staff would be appointed by the Legislative Coordinating Commission, the 12-member, bicameral body made up of caucus leaders from both parties. The bill would also give the budget office authority over local impact studies for legislative proposals; Democrats have warned that the local impact on Loon’s bill could be catastrophic for individual school districts.
Knoblach, for his part, is agnostic about the idea, saying similar proposals had also been in circulation during his first stint in the Legislature, which ended in 2006. The committee chair commented only that the bill had “pros and cons” to it, while hesitating to take a “formal position” at this time.
Knoblach did offer, with a chuckle: “If the [House] speaker asks for a hearing on the bill, I will absolutely give him one.”