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Crossing the party line at the Capitol

To attract Republican votes for an education funding bill, Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, pointed to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s support for early childhood programs. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

To attract Republican votes for an education funding bill, Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, pointed to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s support for early childhood programs. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

As guests of the DFL majority in the Senate go, front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination are a rarity. And yet, there was Jeb Bush, appearing in the upper chamber to support the Democrats’ education funding bill.

Well, sort of. Bush was only present in pictorial form, passed out by Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, to highlight the former Florida governor’s support for early childhood programs similar to those in Wiger’s education bill. As Wiger observed after the floor debate, Bush was the first Republican ever re-elected as Florida’s chief executive.

Describing the snapshot of Bush surrounded by kids who benefited from that program, Wiger added: “It really is a nice picture.”

The appeal was just the last piece of Wiger’s attempt to draw Republican votes to his bill, and the overall effort worked. Five GOP members crossed the aisle to support the legislation, which would increase base-level funding by $365 million.

The result was markedly different from what had transpired over the previous weekend, as the House passed its education bill, and its significantly smaller increase, on a 69-61 party-line vote.

Wiger’s bill was peppered with measures either sponsored or co-sponsored by Republicans — “over 30 different proposals,” he said — and several were arrived at through the joint work of two-member, bipartisan teams.

“That’s my style,” said Wiger, explaining that his use of the smaller work groups dates back to his days chairing the education policy committee.

Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said his “aye” vote owed to the bill’s inclusion of money for teacher evaluations and pre-K scholarships, both of which he worked on with DFL co-sponsors. Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, cited the provision allowing local school districts to raise money for facility costs, and the fact that Wiger maintains local opt-in authority on pre-kindergarten.

“Had [pre-kindergarten] been made mandatory, I would’ve had to vote against it,” Weber said.

Wiger also lost a number of DFL votes along the way, though those came due to the bill’s overall budget target, a view he shares. Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said she was one of “about a dozen” Democrats who had pushed the caucus to raise its education target, to no avail. Five of the most liberal DFL senators ultimately voted against Wiger’s bill as an act of protest.

“We knew there were enough votes to pass it,” Eaton said. “It wasn’t like it was some heroic stance.”

While some members choose to vote against their caucus out of protest or principle, others have strategic intent when they press the button. Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, crossed the aisle to vote in favor of the House Republican tax bill on Wednesday, though she had pillaged the $2 billion tax cut proposal only moments before.

Lenczewski, the former DFL tax committee chair, is seeking to land a position on the conference committee, and said she wants to help work on bringing an “orderly end” to the session. She noted that the proposals receiving the most bipartisan support on the House floor were DFL-authored amendments: One from Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, to increase local government aid (LGA) and restore Republican cuts targeting Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, failed 68-65.

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, who authored the tax bill, said he is not concerned about the derth of DFL votes for it, and emphasized that the proposal had received three DFL votes, including one from a “former speaker [of the House] from Minneapolis.”

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen called that claim “disingenuous,” explaining his purported “yes” vote a procedural motion, rather than an actual statement of support. Davids’ bill contains a number of tax modifications introduced or co-authored by Democrats, such as Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, a former Republican legislator who signed on to the GOP plan to phase out the state’s commercial-industrial property tax.

But Thissen said Democrats who supported individual pieces were ultimately turned off by the bill’s overall focus, which he said would benefit businesses, and what those cuts would do to state spending across a number of categories.

All but one, that is. Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, voted for the tax bill because of its provision on tax reciprocity with Wisconsin, a constant nuisance issue for southeastern Minnesota districts like his and Davids’. Pelowski said he and the bill’s authored had worked “a long time” to craft reciprocity language, and explained that he did not support many of the bill’s other tax reductions.

“That bill’s target will continue to shrink,” Pelowski said, “and the surplus will be used to fund other budget bills.”

The Senate is expected to take up its tax bill in a Monday floor session, and Lenczewski said she hopes to see more Republican support for the bill from Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbook, than House Democrats offered on Wednesday.

“It’ll be interesting to see if the Senate tax bill passes in a more bipartisan way,” Lenczewski said. “If it doesn’t, I think that means people are a lot further away [from a deal] than they’d like to acknowledge.”

As for education, Wiger said he the Senate’s budget conferees would be named in the coming days, and expects to see one Republican join four Democrats to represent that body. The House selected its education conferees on Thursday evening. By necessity, all were members of the GOP caucus, though one, Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, has said he wants to see more money allotted for early childhood education, which received more money in the DFL Senate bill and is the top spending priority for Gov. Mark Dayton.


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