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Legislature agrees on K-12 funding; Pawlenty to sign 2 a.m. bar closing bill
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Gov. Pawlenty announces an agreement that will allow bars in Minnesota to stay open until 2 a.m. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Three days into their special session, state lawmakers have passed half of the state budget bills. The House and Senate passed a bill Thursday night that funds education from pre-school through grade 12, as well as some adult education programs. The bill now goes to Gov. Pawlenty. Supporters say they did their best to continue funding the classroom. Opponents say the bill makes significant cuts to early childhood education, special education funding and English as a second language.

St. Paul, Minn. — The bill cut education funding two percent from the current two-year budget. It also includes $437 million in payment shifts to school districts. Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans have said all session that they would do their best to make sure the classroom is protected from the state's $4.2 billion deficit.

Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington, says they met that goal. The chair of the House Education Finance Committee says while they make $185 million in cuts, the basic per-pupil formula stays at current levels for the next two years.

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Image Not happy

"Many superintendents have quietly tell me, now they won't do that in the public because I can understand, that they're going to be OK. They're not going to be extravagantly happy,but they think they can weather this," she said.

The House passed the bill on a 68-to-61 vote. The vote in the Senate was closer and the debate more pronounced. It passed on a 34-to-33 vote, with every Republican voting for it. Senate DFLers opposed the bill but provided the necessary three votes to pass it. The only Independence Party member voted against it.

Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis, says Gov. Pawlenty and Republicans didn't follow through on their pledge to hold schools harmless. The Minneapolis DFLer says the bill takes away from urban districts. She says there's less money for after-school and summer school programs. She also says cutbacks to special education and English as a second language will impact the schools in her district.

"Equity is just not about the dollar line. This bill is mean. There is no other way to describe it. No other way to describe it. And what does it tell our children? It tells our children that the people who have the most get the most," Ranum said.

Supporters say the bill isn't as dire financially as critics allege. They say the state will pick up the tab when school districts get their levies approved by voters. Districts can also make up lost state aid next year by passing a transition levy. In most cases, that means an increase to property taxes.

Many superintendents quietly tell me... that they're going to be OK. They're not going to be extravagantly happy, but they think they can weather this.
- Rep. Alice Seagren

The bill also allows districts to increase their levy cap, which will help suburban districts who can't currently raise property taxes for schools. Senate Minority Leader Dick Day says Democrats are blowing the cuts out of proportion. The Owatonna Republican says he's pleased to vote for the bill in difficult budget times.

"We have never shirked education in Minnesota and if somebody says 'well, Dick, this is the year that we're going to do it,' all I can tell them is we're shirking a lot of things this year because we have a four-and-a-half-billion-dollar problem. So there's a lot of things that aren't going to be done like they've been done in the past," Day said.

Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, says he's worried the bill will force teacher layoffs. He also says school districts will have to deal with increasing costs but won't see an inflationary increase in their per-pupil formula.

"The ultimate judge of whether the governor has broken his promise is going to be Minnesota students themselves. As they look around their classrooms and see the number of students per classroom go up. Or as they try to enroll in a course they want in high school and they discover that that section has been eliminated because there aren't enough teachers," he said.

One Republican said school districts would be able to manage the cuts better if lawmakers would have included a provision that would freeze teacher salaries.

Lawmakers have three remaining budget bills to pass this year. They are Health and Human Services, Taxes and Transportation.

Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, says Senate Democrats are trying to retain funding for a state health care program for low-income adults without children. She says Minnesota will get up to $500 million from the tax bill just passed by Congress, and some of the money will go to health care programs.

"What we have to cut is devastating, but we do not want to undo the infrastructure. Right now, we'll have to cut but let's keep the infrastructure in place so that when these federal dollars come really shortly, we can undo those cuts immediately," she said.

Republican negotiators say funding for subsidized health insurance comes at the expense of nursing homes and group homes for the developmentally disabled. Negotiators are also working on a bonding bill that would authorize $150 million to $200 million worth of borrowing for construction projects.

Gov. Pawlenty says the bonding bill hinges on the transportation bill that's still unresolved. He says it's possible there won't be an agreement on borrowing for road projects. But he says lawmakers have agreed to pass a bill dealing with transportation policy.

Pawlenty says that bill will include funding for 50 additional state troopers, so he's agreed to sign a bill allowing cities to extend bar hours until 2 a.m.

"I take this issue very seriously, and I was an opponent of 2 a.m. bar hours as a legislator, and still have some reservations. But in the interests of this compromise, I'm willing to go forward," Pawlenty said.

Under the compromise, bars that choose to be open until 2 a.m. will pay a sliding fee based on their annual sales. The State Patrol says the additional money will allow them to hire troopers for parts of rural Minnesota that don't have troopers on duty until 3 a.m.

Pawlenty says he's still hopeful that lawmakers will finish their work by the self-imposed deadline of Friday. If not, he says they should spend the Memorial Day weekend at the Capitol passing budget bills.

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