Walz has big job in passing budget

Gov. Tim Walz presented first state budget
Gov. Tim Walz presented his first state budget and addressed its priorities on Tuesday.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

DFL Gov. Tim Walz will hit the road in the coming days to begin selling his two-year budget proposal to the public. He's getting away from the Capitol where there's already a wide chasm between him and some key lawmakers who will decide the budget's fate.

The nearly $50 billion plan Walz announced Tuesday boosts funding for schools, expands child care assistance programs and begins forming a paid leave program to guarantee partial wages to new parents and people caring for seriously ill relatives.

It also adds 120 correctional officers at state prisons to alleviate staffing shortages that result in safety concerns.

In all, it runs hundreds of pages and covers hundreds of state programs. Most initiatives won't get all that much attention or generate controversy from lawmakers.

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A couple are certain to do both: One is an extension of a 2 percent tax on medical procedures to pay for health programs — slated to raise almost $1 billion over the two years. It is set to expire after December. The other is a phased-in, 20-cent hike to the per-gallon gas tax which is funneled to road and bridge work.

Walz said Tuesday he's being upfront with Minnesotans about the tax increases and the reasons for them.

"No longer are people going to be promised free things and be able to do anything without having the courage of having to propose how we're going to do so," he said

GOP leader Paul Gazelka responds to Gov. Tim Walz budget
Republican Senate majority leader Paul Gazelka said the budget released by Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday was a nonstarter and the GOP would work to sharply curb his proposed tax increases.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Republicans see the increases as more foolhardy than courageous and vowed they will not become law.

"It's zero gas tax increase. It's zero sick tax," said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, dismissing the idea that Republicans would even try to talk Walz down to a lower gas tax hike.

"He's going to be disappointed," Gazelka said. "Because it's not something we're just going to move to the middle on."

Senate Republicans can scuttle the tax measures because they're in the majority. DFLers lead the House.

But a key question for Walz is whether House DFLers, particularly newcomers from suburban districts, will get on board. Some first-termers weren't willing to discuss the budget hours after it came out Tuesday.

"I'd have to look at the proposal closer before I could commit to that. I promise to look over that budget and look a little closer into it," said Rep. Shelly Christensen, DFL-Stillwater, when asked about the gas tax increase.

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher said Minnesota is behind the national curve on transportation funding. Other states have already boosted their dedicated funding for road and bridge work, she said, some through the gas tax. Minnesota needs $18 billion over the next two decades to catch up, Anderson Kelliher said.

"What does it mean to have $18 billion in the system?" Anderson Kelliher said. "It means Minnesotans will be able to move more freely, they will have a more dependable ride where their cars are not going to be banged up as much. And it means they are going to be able to spend time with their families."

Release of the Walz plan simply opens the budget debate. Lawmakers will spend the coming weeks going over it, and in some areas, presenting alternatives.

A new economic forecast is due out next week that could show a projected $1.5 billion surplus has shrunk. If that's the case, Walz would have to revisit his proposal.

"Much of what we're doing is scalable," he said. "And because of that, it gives us the opportunity to adjust, which we will do."

MPR News reporter Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.