Minn. lawmakers OK cuts on parks, safety, colleges

Published 5:29 pm Tuesday, March 29, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota lawmakers approved spending cuts for natural resources and environmental programs, crime prevention initiatives and public colleges on Tuesday, as Republican majorities moved forward with a plan to erase a $5 billion deficit without raising state taxes.

The stakes included whether campers would have a harder time finding their way into state parks, whether the state will have a tougher time investigating claims of discrimination and whether public higher education systems will lay off employees.

A vote was anticipated later Tuesday in the House on a K-12 schools funding package that would bump up basic funding for schools while eliminating racial integration aid and curbing teachers’ employee rights.

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The budget bills were the latest in a lineup making their way through the Legislature this week, even after Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton warned that he won’t sign the bills without an overall agreement on state taxes and spending. Dayton wants to balance the budget by raising taxes on those with the highest incomes.

“I’m still optimistic that we’ll have a constructive resolution,” Dayton said Tuesday. “We’ll have a lot to discuss, obviously, but that’s the nature of the process.”

The House K-12 bill was expected to be a flashpoint. It would eliminate state funding for racial integration efforts, replace the current teacher tenure system with an evaluation-based approach and curb teacher bargaining rights, while raising per-pupil funding levels statewide.

House Education Finance Committee Chairman Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, declined to give any hints about where he planned to yield in negotiations with Dayton’s administration. But he predicted an eventual agreement with the governor on major policy changes — even though Dayton told top lawmakers in a Tuesday letter that he would reject finance bills with objectionable pieces of policy.

“There’s going to be a lot of good stuff that we’re going to do in the education reform area,” Garofalo told reporters before the session.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said she was confident after a meeting with the governor that he would reject the House bill. She said the integration cut and a provision capping aid for special education were “the two worst things in the bill.”

“It’s an ugly and mean-spirited bill,” she said. “The governor thinks this is an ugly and mean-spirited bill, too.”

Dayton said he was concerned about how money was being shuffled, resulting in losses in some districts and gains in others.

“I don’t know if that one is redeemable or not,” the governor told reporters.

A higher education package that would slice into aid to the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system cleared the Senate by a vote of 37-27.

University of Minnesota officials predicted the bill would cost them about $243 million in state aid, a bigger cut than the House or Dayton sought. Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, warned that the reduction would be “economically devastating” to the university and reverberate throughout the state’s economy.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, acknowledged that potential cuts to individual campuses “sound like large amounts of money” but said they were relatively small in relation to the entire campus budgets. Fischbach said the reductions “will not cut so deep that they put the universities out of business,” dismissing comments by Democrats that the proposal could force some smaller state schools to close.

Debate was also under way on a House version of the higher education bill, which would cut about $320 million from both systems combined.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said the cuts were deep but the bill aimed to protect students by preserving student aid funds and capping tuition increases. The House bill would limit tuition hikes to 2 percent at 2-year MnSCU campuses, 4 percent at 4-year MnSCU institutions and about 5 percent for U of M undergraduates.

“All things considered, I’m happy with where we’re at,” Nornes said.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said the bill amounts to “the largest cut in the history of Minnesota to higher education,” taking state funding back to 1998 levels.

Environment spending packages passed both houses, clearing the Senate 37-28 and the House 72-57.

House members removed a provision that would have allowed commercial logging in two state parks. Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr opposed the timber harvesting in a letter to legislators that cited a state law protecting state parks “without impairment for the enjoyment and recreation of future generations.” The provision wasn’t part of the Senate bill.

The Senate also approved a public safety budget bill that would preserve money for state courts while reducing crime-prevention grants and the budget for the state’s anti-discrimination office. The vote was 36-28. The bill would halve the budget for the Department of Human Rights, which could hinder its ability to investigate complaints of discrimination at restaurants, apartments and other businesses. Grants for community programs aimed at preventing crime would drop by a few million dollars.