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Energy Aid to Schools Stirs Rebate Debate
By Michael Khoo
February 5, 2001
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The Minnesota Senate has approved up to $30 million in emergency assistance for schools hit by rising energy costs. Supporters of the bill say the measure will allow schools to pay their heating bills without making cuts in other programs. But critics say the plan is just the first step towards spending down the state's projected surplus rather than returning it as a rebate.

THE MEASURE PASSED on a more-or-less party-line vote: 40-23 with support mainly from Democrats. Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, was the chief author.

"It's not only the abnormally cold weather that we faced in December, but it's also the rapidly increasing fuel costs for transportation," he said.

0 The proposal takes $30 million of the expected one-time surplus money, money which otherwise appears headed for a third sales-tax rebate in the summer. Stumpf says without the emergency assistance, this year's high energy costs would force school districts to consider staff cuts and other program reductions.

The prospect of a diminished rebate check attracted heavy opposition from Senate Republicans.

"Wake up Minnesotans! The DFL majority is coming after your money," Senate Minority Leader Dick Day told lawmakers. Day says it's $30 million for schools today, millions more for other needy groups tomorrow.

"We can talk about the heat, the cost of expenses for highway patrol and for city cops, and county policemen and hospitals and nursing homes and the whole lot," he said.

Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says Day and other Republican critics are overreacting. Johnson says the projected $924 million surplus is large enough to fund multiple projects. He also says the school energy aid represents a small sliver of the surplus.

"Ought we to have tax breaks? Yes. Rate reductions? Yes. A sales tax rebate, perhaps some time this summer? Yes. But what we're talking about is three percent of the projected surplus," said Johnson during Senate floor debate.

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives, where Republican leadership is not sympathetic. Speaker Steve Sviggum says he understands the pressure energy costs have placed on schools, but he says the pressure is no different from what thousands of other Minnesotans face.

"Your house, my house, apartments; it's costing more this year to heat. Along with the governor, we would be saying that the surplus money should be sent back to individuals, to homeowners, to renters so that they can pay their heating costs, too," Sviggum said.

A spokesman for the governor says Ventura has yet to take a position on the bill and will wait to see what happens in the House.