‘It won’t be easy’: Senate budget plan sets up debate


Senate GOP targets
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka talks about the Republican budget targets. Brian Bakst | MPR News

Republicans who run the Minnesota Senate insisted Thursday they’ll produce a lean state budget that gets new money to schools, broadband expansion and mental health programs without raising taxes.

Their broad-strokes outline will guide senators as they craft a two-year budget. It’s not yet clear how many new dollars will flow to each classroom or how much less will go to various state agencies that deliver services. Those details will get filled in by committees in coming weeks.

The $47.6 billion Senate plan is far smaller than the plans DFL House leaders and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz have proposed. Each of theirs top $49 billion.

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Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said it means tough negotiations are ahead.

“It’s never easy. It won’t be easy this time,” Gazelka said. “There’s going to be a lot of stuff that both sides want that in the end is not going to happen. But what will happen is we will pass a balanced budget that Minnesota can be proud of.”

Democrats panned the Republican proposal as unrealistic. They said it fails to adequately factor in that programs in place today cost more to provide due to inflation.

“This is another example I think, similar to what we’ve seen in recent years, of some accounting gimmicks and some fuzzy math,” said Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury. “It’s not presenting a realistic picture of where we are right now, where our state is going and preparing to provide the services that Minnesotans deserve.”

Only Walz has produced a full line-by-line plan. And this week’s release of blueprints in the House and Senate offer a limited view because they don’t present the numbers in the same fashion.

Take education, for instance.

The House DFL majority described a $900 million increase for the next two years about the same bump as Senate GOP majority did in their targets. But the overall proposed spending differs mightily -- $20.5 billion in the House compared to $19.8 billion in the Senate.

The disparity is in the starting point. Democrats built off of expected growth in existing programs whereas Republicans -- to account for natural cost increases in providing the same services -- are using what was adopted for the budget two years ago.

“It’s apples to elephants,” Walz said of the competing presentations.

What it means is that before the sides start haggling over where each dollar goes, they’ll have to come to a common agreement on what the numbers mean. That might not happen until early May, leaving them just three or four weeks to fill in the blanks by the adjournment deadline.

Republicans said they would use $75 million of their increased spending for school safety measures.

Gazelka said his caucus is committed to holding the line on spending. He ruled out an increase to the gas tax for transportation projects or other tax hikes to bump up spending on health care and other initiatives. Lawmakers have a projected $1 billion surplus at their disposal.

There are areas in the GOP plan where overall spending for the next two years would come in below what's been spent during the current budget, but some of that has to do with the expiration of one-time spending. Gazelka said the effect of trims will be minimal.

“I don’t think our budget will show any services people will miss or feel,” he said.

One key sticking point will be how to handle spending on health and social service programs. The Republican budget framework represents an uptick in spending but barely more than what would be eaten up by inflationary cost growth.

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said it will force lawmakers to be creative.

“A lot of our work is going to be trying to rearrange where the money goes to focus on the people with the most severe needs,” Abeler said. “We’re absolutely committed to pre-existing conditions, we’re committed to the seniors, we’re committed to people with disabilities, we’re committed to children’s mental health.”

Republicans want to let a tax on medical provider lapse as scheduled. Walz and House DFLers say doing that would eventually drain a fund that helps pay for health services.

As far as tax cuts, the Republican plan alludes to changes to how Social Security income is treated, credits for donors to private school scholarship programs and other breaks for families and businesses. Senators declined to provide more details.

The Legislature is aiming to approve a final budget in May but must have one in place by the end of June to avoid a government shutdown.