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Reps. Andrew Falk of Murdock, left, and Bill Hilty of Finlayson watch activity in the Minnesota House Wednesday as lawmakers passed a series of budget bills.
Staff photo by Don Davis - Minn. State Capitol Bureau
Reps. Andrew Falk of Murdock, left, and Bill Hilty of Finlayson watch activity in the Minnesota House Wednesday as lawmakers passed a series of budget bills. Staff photo by Don Davis - Minn. State Capitol Bureau

Lawmakers OK steady school, lower college funding

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Woodbury Minnesota 8420 City Centre Drive 55125

ST. PAUL - Minnesota lawmakers propose to keep public school funding stable for the next two years and give public colleges and universities a small state spending cut.

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The Democrat-controlled Legislature on Wednesday passed a $13.7 billion spending plan for early childhood programs and K-12 schools that protects schools from spending reductions planned for many other budget state budget areas. Also, lawmakers approved a $3 billion measure funding state colleges and universities that trims state spending by 2 percent.

But both bills are in doubt. They are tied up in the unresolved budget-balancing dispute between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative Democrats and were passed before there was a deal on how to pay for the spending.

The public school funding package passed the House 85-49. The Senate voted 49-16.

The agreement is different than what the Senate and House initially passed. Senators earlier passed a bill that cut school funding by 3.2 percent from what is spent under current law. The House had passed an education bill that kept school funding stable, but relied on nearly $1.8 billion in delayed payments to help fund schools. That delay is not included in the compromise bill.

Pawlenty proposed a 1.4 percent increase to public education in the next budget period, but his plan includes the same type of delayed funding that the House proposed.

Education negotiators said their bill does not cut state spending to classrooms and does not rely on the funding delay, but acknowledged there still is not agreement on how to pay for the package.

"This is the best-case scenario for all of us to support our students," said Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, the House public school funding chairwoman.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said the bill lacks key Pawlenty school reform proposals and it does not increase funding for school transportation. However, Garofalo said, it retains funding for a controversial program promoting racial integration in schools. Some money from that program covers high-paid administrators, he said.

"In short, from the funding perspective, this is a pretty good deal for the adults," Garofalo said. "It's just bad for the kids."

Funding for public schools is the largest state spending area, representing nearly 40 percent of an expected $33 billion budget.

The two public higher education systems would receive 2 percent less money than under current law -- $1.35 billion to the University of Minnesota, $1.32 billion to Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Spending cuts would have been deeper, but federal economic stimulus funds eased those cuts, said Rep. Tom Rukavina, the House higher education chairman.

"We really lucked out there," Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said of federal funds.

Senators passed the higher education package 54-12 and the House followed with a 103-31 vote.

Democratic Sen. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul, Senate higher education chairwoman, said federal funds should allow both systems to keep tuition increases at 3 percent a year.

Rep. Bud Nornes, a former House higher education chairman, said the agreement lacks a couple of controversial items that were included in an earlier House budget plan.

"The bill is as good as it can get," Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said, referring to the 2 percent spending reductions.

But some legislators representing University of Minnesota campuses voted against the higher education package.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said his "no" vote stemmed from an agreement among higher education negotiators about how to spend some federal funds.

Some lower-income students may not be able to attend the University of Minnesota because tuition has increased but there is not a matching increase in state grant funding. There was $68 million available, and only $6 million was needed to close the gap, but that was not part of the final plan, he said. The money was used for other higher education initiatives.

"Everybody should have gotten a little," Skoe said.

Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, who represents the university's Duluth campus, also voted against the higher education spending package for the same reason.

"It was very difficult," said Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth. "I deliberated back and forth."

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