Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Race is On.  Conference committee season kicked off today and there was a lot of presentation of side-by-side comparisons between the House and Senate bills across a broad range of tax and budget areas.  The E-12 budget and conference committee included testimony from Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.  Her main messages were:  (1) the legislative budget target is way too low to provide Minnesota families and school districts what they need, and (2) the decision by the House to repeal the Governor's voluntary all-day pre-kindergarten program is unwise and would unfairly penalize those districts currently participating in the program.  It should make for a spirited discussion as the conference committee puts together its bill to send to the Governor.  It will be interesting to see if the Legislature sends bills to the Governor and have them meet a likely veto or begin their negotiations in earnest with the Governor prior to the bills reaching the legislative floor.

The tax committee did not take testimony, but made it through most of the side-by-side comparison.  The sheer size and scope of the tax bill requires a lot of time to present.

Both conference committees are slated to meet again tomorrow.  The E-12 conference committee will be discussing the teacher licensing changes that emanate from the legislative task force that met last summer while the tax conferees will continue working through their side-by-side comparison.

In keeping with today's title, here's the late great George Jones singing one of his biggest hits:

We Have Lift-Off.  The conference committees for the E-12 and Tax bills have been named and I'm relatively certain that the e-mail inboxes of the members named to these bodies are going to be chock full of messages for the next couple of weeks (including a few from me so I'm hoping their spam filter has been suitably relaxed).  It will likely be a hectic couple of weeks because I'm guessing that the Legislature would like to get all the spending bills to the Governor with at least two weeks left before the regular session's Constitutionally-mandated adjournment date of May 22.

Here are the members of each of the conference committees.  I have made their name into a hyperlink that connects to their legislative page, which includes contact information.

HF 890--Omnibus E-12 Funding and Policy Bill

House Members

Senate Members

HF 4--Omnibus Tax Bill

House Members

Senate Members

And so, we have lift-off.  I'll be in my orbiter circling both of these conference committees.  I urge all SEE members to contact the members of these conference committees with polite messages supporting education funding adequacy and taxpayer fairness.  

Monday, April 17, 2017

Legislature Returns.  After a ten-day break, the Legislature will be returning to St. Paul tomorrow and it promises to be a hectic couple of weeks as conference committees will be appointed and convened for the tax bill and all of the budget bills.  It will be interesting to see how long it takes to wrap up the conference committees seeing that there isn't that much difference in the budget targets between the House and the Senate.  I don't have any inside information, but from my vantage point, I think the Legislature would like to get its bills to the Governor by May 1 because it is expected the Governor will be sending most of them back with a veto message attached.  Here's an article from the Minnesota Public Radio web page that provides some insight that would back up that impression.  

Commissioners Set Stakes for Upcoming Budget Battle

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Sit back and enjoy a little bit of Gene Autry with one of his greatest hits (No, not Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) to celebrate the Legislature's return to the saddle.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Governor Goes on Offensive.  In what may well be harbinger of what will be happening for the next month, Governor Dayton released a set of comparative spreadsheets comparing his budget for E-12 education with what has been passed in the Legislature.  Clearly, the revenue going to school districts is much more in the Governor's budget given that his target is more than twice that of either of the legislative targets.  

Neither the House nor Senate named their conferees for the Tax Bill and E-12 budget bill today, but with the Governor's weighing in today on his education budget and the difference between it and what the legislature is considering, it's obvious negotiations are underway.

Here are the links to the information that Governor sent out today:

Funding by District Comparison

Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Comparison

Governor's Debt Service Equalization

Interactive Map Showing Revenue and Tax Relief Under Governor's Budget

The Legislature will counter the Governor's parry with information of their own and it is likely that the budget target will come up as the session continues, so stay tuned.  Things will undoubtedly get interesting.

Teacher Licensing Article.   This article was in today's edition of MinnPost and it provides a good summary of the effort.  The House passed its version of the bill on the floor today on a vote of 76-55, with one DFLer voting for and one Republican voting against.

Here is the article:  Lawmakers Fine-tune Proposed Overhaul of Teacher Licensing in Minnesota

National Charter/Testing Debate.  It hasn't really shown up in Minnesota yet this year, but with the change in administrations at the Federal level, there's been a lot more talk about charter school performance and testing policy.  Minnesota has hashed out a lot of the issues pertaining to charter schools that seem to be at the heart of much of the national debate, but that doesn't mean that some of the issues relating to testing won't take on increasing attention in the near future, especially in light of the recently-released Legislative Auditor's report on Minnesota's MCA testing.

The left-of-center The American Prospect has been following education policy debates closely the past couple of years and this article about how charter school and testing issues are currently playing out in Maryland.

Maryland Showdown on Testing, Charters, and the Direction of Public Schools

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Whirlwind Days.  The education funding and tax bills are off the floor in both the House and the Senate.  Last Friday, the House passed the omnibus education funding and policy bill on a vote of 75-54 with one DFLer voting in favor and no Republicans voting against.  The debate on the House floor took about two hours and wasn't as acrimonious as I expected.  There weren't many amendments.  Part of that is likely due to the small target, which it makes it difficult to move money around in the bill without taking it out of the basic formula.  You may recall that last week the House lowered the annual basic formula increase from 1.5% to 1.25% to move money into school readiness to help those districts that are currently participating in the voluntary pre-kindergarten program a soft landing as the program is repealed.  The DFLers were likely reluctant to move any further dollars out of that program and into anything else.  I should also mention that $11 million was moved into the bill in the Ways and Means Committee to pay for improvements to the transportation sparsity formula.

The discussion of the omnibus education bill took a little longer in the Senate, logging in at about four hours.  As was the case in the House, there were no major amendments added to the bill, which passed on a vote of 38-28 (four DFLers supported the bill).

Both the House and Senate omnibus education bills are less than half of what the Governor has requested.  The Legislature has set its sites on a big tax cut package and in order to do that, they have had to keep spending in the various areas below the Governor's recommendations.  Add to that, the recently-passed and soon-to-become-law health coverage reinsurance plan will take $542 million off the bottom line for the biennium which will make end-of-session negotiations very tight.  That said, here's hoping that more will be added to the E-12 budget target and we can get back to the 2% annual increases that the Governor recommended and some additional assistance with solving the TRA funding problem.  It will be important for the education community to speak loudly and with a unified voice to get the target where it needs to be.

It was on the Senate tax bill that things got exciting.  Senator Matt Klein offered an amendment that would spend $29 million annually on referendum equalization by raising the equalizing factors on the first and second tiers.  At that point, Senator Carla Nelson moved to amend the amendment, designating the source of the revenue needed to fund the amendment as local government aid for the city of Minneapolis.  That obviously picked a scab and the amendment to the amendment passed by a one vote margin on a straight party-line vote with all DFLers in opposition.  The amendment then passed on a 35-32 vote, with three DFLers voting in favor and two Republicans voting against.

The bottom line is that there are now at least place holders for both referendum and debt service equalization in the Senate tax bill.  The House has no such provisions, but the Governor does have debt service equalization in his tax recommendations, so equalization is in play and that's all one can ask for.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Equalization in Senate Tax Bill.  It's not a perfect provision, but given all the pushing I've done on debt service equalization over the past two decades to no avail, it would be like a starving man sending back Filet Mignon because it wasn't cooked quite right.  The Senate Tax bill contains a provision that would lower eligibility on the first tier of the debt service equalization program from 15.74% to 10% and raise the equalizing factor from 55.33% of the state average ANTC to 75% of the state average ANTC.  So far, so good.  The wrinkle is that the increased equalization would be good only for property taxes payable in 2018, which would put districts on a yo-yo with taxpayers.  While a one-year tax break would be appreciated by property taxpayers, districts would have to do a lot of explaining when the tax bill jumped again in 2019.  But still, it's nice to be seated at a table in the legislative restaurant and having the opportunity to talk about debt service equalization and how it can promote long-term fairness in Minnesota's property tax system.  I will be getting the data run to Deb Griffiths for distribution tomorrow, so watch your e-mail inbox.

So, there is debt service equalization in the Governor's bill (lowers 2nd tier to 19% from 26.24%) and the Senate bill (lowers first tier from 15.74% to 10% and raises equalizing factor), but there is nothing in the House bill.  As Meat Loaf once crooned, "Two out of three's not bad."  Meat Loaf would obviously have flunked the MCA math test for not knowing that two out of three equals 66.7%, but I won't quibble.  Anyway, with the above scenario in mind, enjoy this classic Meat Loaf song.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Oops!!!!! I am not a dunce, but last night I predicted that today's hearing in the Senate E-12 Finance Committee that covered the omnibus education funding and policy bill would be a snoozer and sakes alive was I ever wrong.  As with every hearing like this, the minority caucus offers amendments.  In the modern era of legislative activity replete with budget targets, it is difficult for the minority to mount much of a challenge against the expenditures in the bill because the bill must remain reconciled to the committee's budget target.  That means that revenue must be found in one portion of the bill to fund the amendments offered by the minority.  Things were going on swimmingly.  The minority caucus offered mild criticism of the bill and pointed out the programs in the Governor's budget that were funded with the $400 million in revenue above what it in the Senate bill.  It was then that a string of amendments were offered by the minority and after each offering, the majority offered an amendment to the minority amendment that "found" the money to fund the initiative.  Needless to say, some of the spending categories used to fund the amendments that eventually passed were not particularly popular with the minority, especially the deep cuts to the Minnesota Department of Education.  I wouldn't say voices were raised, but there was a tension in the air that I wasn't expecting.

I always have to remind myself that some days I forget how old I am.  Having been around the Legislature as long as I have, I tend to remember an era before the advent of budget resolutions with overall budget targets not being set until bills got into conference committees.  In that era, members of the minority caucus would offer scads of amendments all with the intention of making the majority look bad by proposing to spend money well beyond what the majority intended to--but was not bound to--spend.  Committee meetings and floor sessions would go on seemingly endlessly and more paper than could be produced from a couple of Sequoia Redwoods was generated.  For the past couple of decades, budget resolutions that are set before the omnibus spending bills are developed gives the majority a formal mechanism to rule anything that violates the committee target out of order.  It has truncated the process greatly and there are is both good and bad in that fact (at least from my vantage point).

The difference between the House and Senate proceedings and the amendments offered in the House is that the minority had a couple of target appropriations they zeroed in on to move money toward other programs.  The Senate bill had no such zone the minority could tap into from which they could offer amendments without complication.

Speaking of the House bill, in the Tax Committee yesterday, an amendment was offered by Representative Loon--the bill's chief author--and subsequently adopted that dropped the basic formula increase from 1.5% per year to 1.25% with the revenue generated from the decrease directed toward the school readiness program for districts currently participating in the voluntary pre-kindergarten program.  The revenue would only be available this biennium and would allow for a soft landing in these districts as the House bill repeals the voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

The Senate releases its tax bill tomorrow and it is hoped that there will be some equalization in the bill.  I will report on that once it is confirmed.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Bills are Rollin', Rollin', Rollin' Out.  No Clint Eastwood herding the bill ala "Rawhide," but the Senate E-12 Funding Division rolled out its version of the omnibus education funding and policy bill this afternoon.  Like the House bill, the target falls well short of the Governor's, but unlike the House bill, it's a very straightforward bill that doesn't seek to repeal current programs, de-link a lot of formulas, or implement broad new initiatives.  Instead, the bill puts money on the formula at 1.5%, directs an estimated $10 million to helping districts absorb the correction in the Teacher Retirement Association shortfall, increases funding for the Minnesota Reading and Math Corps, and a modest funding increase for the Early Childhood Scholarship program.  Along with funding for a set of isolated grant programs, it all adds up to the Senate Republican budget target of $300 million plus another $10 million that is expected to be generated from the sale of the Crosswinds Arts and Science Magnet School.

That's not to say this bill is bereft of any reform or new initiatives.  It's just that education funding and policy bills of recent vintage have been chock full of all kinds of programs and policy changes that inflate the bill to the size where one needs a figurative forklift to haul it around.  The bill expands on the reading at grade level by the end of third grade initiative that has been discussed over the past few years and contains the entirety of SF 4, Senator Eric Pratt's bill that establishes the Professional Educator Standards and Licensing Board.  The teacher licensure article also contains language that would eliminate the requirement that teachers holding an Academic and Behavioral Strategist (ABS) license take additional credits to maintain their license and instructs the newly-minted board to study Minnesota's current array of special education licenses to gauge for overlap.  The shortage of special education teachers has reached epic proportions and any measures undertaken to alleviate that shortage are needed.

Unlike the House bill that repeals the Governor's voluntary pre-kindergarten program, the Senate bill leaves it alone.  It does not embrace the $175 million the Governor has provided for the program in his budget recommendations, but that provision is left untouched in the Senate bill.  In her testimony, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius pointed out her disappointment that several items of importance to the Governor were missing from the bill, but there's no question that the Senate bill is less confrontational to the Governor than the House bill is.

The bill is slated for mark-up tomorrow morning, but it's difficult to envision many earth-shattering amendments being offered.  The House bill rankled a number of DFL members of the House Education Funding Committee with the de-linking of the compensatory formula from the basic formula and the deep-sixing of the voluntary pre-kindergarten program, but with policies like that absent from the Senate bill, it's difficult to see what amendments would promote and where they would take money from to fund the proposals would come from.  After that, the bill needs to head to the Senate Tax Committee (probably Thursday) and the Senate Finance Committee (probably Friday).  Both the House and Senate bills will be on the floor early next week.

Stay tuned.

Federal Rumblings.  President Trump signed the Congressional Review Act today and when it takes effect, two provisions relating to teacher preparation and teacher performance will be repealed.  There hasn't been a lot of talk about how the new administration will pursue some of its stated educational goals, most notably school choice and charter school promotion (which is understandable given the attention given to health care policy with tax policy on deck), but today's action marks the return to state jurisdiction a handful of policies.

Here is an article from US News and World Report on the policy changes:  Trump Signs Legislation Rolling Back Obama-era Regulations.