Minnesota is officially missing about 40 percent of a budget. At least that much. Gov. Mark Dayton released the veto letter he had promised to issue to the education budget passed during the regular session, writing to House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk that the bill’s failure to provide for some level of universal pre-kindergarten was “unacceptable.”
The issuing of the veto was merely academic, so to speak. Dayton had already said Tuesday morning that he would reject the bill, though he had not then received it. His letter remained unchanged; so, too, are the attitudes around the debate.
Also passing from verbal utterance to paper copy was the crux of the rhetorical dispute behind Dayton’s veto. In the wake of the session’s end, Dayton accused some Republicans of “hating public schools.” House Speaker Kurt Daudt said Dayton should apologize for that claim. On Thursday, a group of eight Republicans, led by Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, took a softer approach, releasing a letter asking the governor to grant them a private meeting.
Instead of free pre-K for all students, as Dayton insisted upon, those Republicans back targeted support aimed at “lifting up the children who need the most help on their path to educational achievement,” the Republicans wrote.
Accusations of motive have gone both ways, and Dayton has been portrayed as an overeager teachers’ pet, seeking more money only to please his “union bosses,” according to the Republican Party of Minnesota. The rhetorical digging in bodes poorly for negotiating parties, and even worse for school districts, which remain unable to design budgets that would go into effect with the beginning of the July 1 fiscal year.
Dayton and Daudt are scheduled to begin their negotiations on a special session agenda on Tuesday. That construction leaves out the Senate, which is curious because both the administration and the House use the upper chamber as a central part of their arguments. House Republicans point out that their education target of $400 million was agreed to by Senate Democrats, and passed already, while Dayton says those same Democrats would readily vote for the $550 million target he angled for in the session’s final hours.
They’re both right, according to Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, chair of the Senate E-12 Finance Committee, who said he believed his caucus would have voted for the $700 million education increase the governor sought originally.
“Is there support for [$700 million]? Absolutely,” Wiger said. “But we had a deadline, and we had to work within our target of $400 million. We’re bicameral. Saying ‘my way or the highway’ wasn’t realistic at the end.”
Both Wiger and Loon, as well as a number of prominent education advocates, favor adding money to the basic formula instead of earmarking it for specific programs. Loon said that in their final offer to the governor on Monday night, with $100 million on the table, House GOP leaders had wanted $60 million to go toward the formula, leaving another $40 million for the governor to allocate for his priority programs.
Dayton balked: Implementing half-day pre-kindergarten for the 2016-17 school year alone comes with a projected cost of $173 million. Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, one of the House conferees on the budget, said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius’ office had failed to lobby committee members and force the issue on pre-kindergarten.
“If you’re not going to really work hard for something you believe in, then it doesn’t appear to be a priority,” Erickson said. “The governor, with the commissioner as his liaison, missed the point there.”
Loon took issue with the framing of Dayton’s emailed veto threat to Bakk and Daudt, which also named other necessary elements, like $25 million for special education and $19 million for the “Q-Comp” teacher compensation program.
“There’s certainly room to talk about those things, but his email makes it sound like there was no money for any of those things,” Loon said. “But most of the things he mentioned are areas where we did spend more money in this bill.”
Denise Specht, president of the Education Minnesota teachers union, said her organization has continually made the case that leaders do not need to choose between a formula aid boost and early education.
“Our priorities haven’t changed,” Specht said. “We want to get more funding for our schools, and to be able to add to a pre-K access program. We’re one of the only school groups that supported both.”
Specht also denied allegations that the governor’s intransigence was an act of “payback” for unions that supported his campaigns, or an attempt to add to the unions’ ranks.
“We don’t even know how many new members this would bring,” Specht said of universal pre-K. “It isn’t mandatory, and we don’t know if every school district will do it.”
Aside from House Republicans, the governor has said school districts and administrators should take some blame for killing the pre-K expansion. Dayton said school leaders are reluctant to embark on new programs, and said they are afraid of losing students to neighboring districts that choose to launch pre-K.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, did not admit to those charges, but does think the district-level opposition to pre-K might have been misinterpreted and overstated.
“There was probably some miscommunication on that,” Croonquist said. “We at the school districts take responsibility for that, for not making ourselves more clear.”
The period of uncertainty as districts await to find out how much money they will receive, and for what, should be kept as short as reasonably possible, Croonquist said. Districts usually plan provisional budgets beginning in the winter, and then must race to finalize those figures once the session ends in mid- to late May.
“Now, when we push into a special session, it just makes it that much more difficult,” Croonquist said.
Both players and observers say they are satisfied with the policy measures that passed off both chamber floors, and want to focus only on agreeing to a new budgeting scheme. Loon, for her part, said she could not think of a program funded out of the compromise budget that could take the sizable cut needed to find money for Dayton’s priorities.
“When you develop a conference committee report, it sort of reflects as much as you can of the priorities either body brought to the table,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to try to unravel any of that hard work that was done.”