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Education standoff may yield special session

The 2015 legislative session is hurtling toward some kind of conclusion, but with less than 12 hours remaining before adjournment, it’s hard to tell if the end looks more like a collision or a near-miss. Either way, expect sparks.

Gov. Mark Dayton is threatening to veto a compromise education budget if legislators don’t rise closer to his spending level, and has said he is willing to call a special session to get his way. The education bill is the only bright-line declaration from the governor, meaning the remainder of the budget would likely be signed into law, while the state’s school systems would still await a budget effective July 1.

House Republicans and Senate Democrats had been miles apart for months, most notably on education and health and human services spending, as the GOP booked lesser spending in favor of a huge, $2 billion package of tax reductions. Once that bill, and any other tax legislation, seemed doomed to fail this session, pieces fell into place fairly quickly.

On Friday evening, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and House Speaker Kurt Daudt announced agreement on joint budget targets, bringing an apparent end to continuous and fruitless negotiations at the governor’s residence. Under that agreement, the two sides essentially split the difference on education, which would receive $400 million of the surplus, and health and human services, which is booked for a $328 million decrease on base-level spending.

Critics have said the human services target is a deep cut in light of the $1.9 billion surplus, but the agreement is far more generous than the original House proposal, which would’ve cut about $1 billion in that spending. Education, likewise, was a fairly neat compromise between the budget increases planned by the House ($154 million), the Senate ($365 million) and Dayton, whose supplementary budget sought nearly $700 million in new education spending.

The announcement from Daudt and Bakk should’ve cleared the runway for a hasty but on-time adjournment. It didn’t. Dayton called a press conference to restate his veto threat, saying lawmakers had refused to meet him halfway between their $400 million agreement and his $700 million target. Failing that, Dayton said, he would feel compelled to force legislators to a special session, though he said blame should be placed at the feet of the lawmakers.

The governor’s ultimatum, issued on Saturday, was promptly ignored by both chambers, which swiftly moved on with conference committee activities and floor session. The House moved the conference committee’s omnibus education late Sunday night, and bill author Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said the package is a “great start,” pointing out that, added to the previous budget, it marked a $1.3 billion increase above base budgeting since 2013.

“If that’s not commitment,” she said, “I don’t know what is.”

House Democrats disagreed: The bill passed on a 71-59 party-line vote, and was scheduled to go before the full Senate mid-morning on Monday.

The House then moved on to the conference report on the compromise human services budget, which fared slightly better, measured by partisan reception; the bill passed 86 votes to 43, and its DFL supporters included a former Democratic majority leader, Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, and a handful of urban and suburban moderates.

The human services package was immediately routed to the Senate, as its floor session carried-over into the early hours of Monday morning. There, Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, one of the conferees who had helped craft the final version of the bill, decried its reliance on projected “savings” through increased enforcement of public program eligibility and fraud prevention.

“I … ran against shifts and gimmicks, and now I know we have some in this bill,” Franzen said.

Even still, she voted for its passage, as did a bipartisan group of 48 other senators. The 16 “no” votes paired the body’s most conservative Republicans, who disliked its failure to hold down rising costs in the future, and liberal Democrats, who found the target too stingy.

Monday’s major agenda items include a stripped-down, “lights-on” transportation bill that would add just $30 million of general fund money to the current budget, as well as the resolution of budget bills on jobs and economic development and another for the environment and agriculture. The Senate opened its session for the day at 9 a.m., but broke for a recess before reconvening to take up the education bill. The House was not scheduled to convene until 12:30 p.m. that afternoon; both chambers could be expected to meet late into Monday evening to handle any remaining business before the midnight deadline.

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