ST. PAUL — Greater Minnesota could see expanded access to broadband, more money for public schools and a tax cut for some as part of a budget framework put forth in the state Capitol.
Legislative leaders and the governor late Sunday, May 19, announced their framework for a two-year $48 billion spending plan, which was set to be hashed out further by conference committee chairs and commissioners on Monday and beyond. The Legislature is expected to return as early as Thursday for a special session to approve or vote down parts of the spending plan.
An open question Monday was the outcome of one of the biggest greater Minnesota issues: state aid paid to local governments, especially Local Government Aid for cities and County Program Aid.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman told Forum News Service that she, Gov. Tim Walz and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka left the question about how much aid should be appropriated up to House and Senate tax negotiators. However, Walz said that the trio agreed to $30 million in the next two years.
Gazelka, meanwhile, said: “We are working through that.”
The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities was putting on a last-minute push to get more LGA funds, as they have every year since 2003.
“As lawmakers continue to hammer out the details, I want to reiterate that there needs to be a $30.5 million increase in Local Government Aid in order for this session to be considered a success for greater Minnesota,” Bemidji City Council member Ron Johnson said. “This has been our No. 1 priority since the first day of the session and we will continue to lean on our legislators to make it a reality.”
Johnson, coalition president, said that both Democrat Walz and the Democratic House majority have supported the increase, which would return state aid to cities to 2002 levels. LGA was reduced in 2003 to help balance the state budget.
“As we move into a special session, it is vital that they continue to fight for communities throughout the state and pass a $30.5 million LGA increase this year,” Johnson said.
Some Republicans say LGA no longer is needed by some cities, but Sen. Bill Weber of Luverne disagrees. “It’s important,” the former mayor said.
Overall, Weber said, it appears that greater Minnesota will do well this session.
For instance, he said, keeping gasoline taxes the same will help provide steady transportation funding rural Minnesotans want. With more fuel efficient, and electric, cars, gasoline tax no longer will be able to support all the road and bridge work it has for years, Weber said. So GOP actions to take some money for transportation out of the state’s general tax-supported fund mean a more security funding stream, he added.
Weber praised a compromise to give schools’ per-pupil funding formula a 2 percent increase each of the next two years. Rural schools say they are falling behind the funding city schools receive.
Walz echoed that comment, saying schools that haven't benefitted from public referendum votes would have new revenue to fall back on. And while it wasn't as much as he'd hoped to funnel to public schools, the boost could be viewed as a "downpayment."
"Now you're going to relieve some of the pressure on that," Walz said.
Middle-class tax cuts included in the Walz-legislative leader compromise often are brought up as especially good for greater Minnesota, where the middle class tends to dominate.
“This is what happens when you work together," Walz said. “We’ve got an income tax reduction on the middle class, that happened and I’m proud to have been a part of it. That’s something that couldn’t have gotten done any other time."
Selling bonds to finance public works projects is another major greater Minnesota issue, and one that as Monday wound down was in doubt.
Since Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, were not included in high-level negotiations as the session ended, they are wild cards in the bonding issue. They must provide votes to majority Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the House if a bonding bill is to pass by the constitutionally mandated supermajority.
And the legislative leaders and the governor specifically blocked out $40 million to go toward building out broadband in the next budget.
As time ran down in the regular session Monday, one of the issues being discussed was nursing home funding. Republicans said that Democratic budget plans could cut nursing home aid.
Gazelka said his side is fighting to keep funding flowing. “We have not agreed to nursing home cuts," he said. "That is a big one for us”
Separate from the budget talks, lawmakers in the House and Senate approved a package of reforms for assisted living facilities on Sunday, paving the way for the proposal to land on Walz's desk. He has said he will sign the bill into law.
The package would require assisted living facilities to be licensed by the state and would set in place various protections for seniors. Among them is a provision that would allow residents in assisted living facilities or their family members to place cameras in their rooms to ensure their safety.
Lawmakers also approved a fee on opioid manufacturers aimed at boosting education and opioid treatment programs across the state.
Forum News Service reporter Don Davis contributed to this report.