Daily Digest: It’s a wrap

On Friday, Gov. Walz signed the final budget bills, wrapping up the work from this year's overtime session. And so it was time to start picking though it all, providing plenty of fodder for your Monday morning Digest.

1. Walz puts a bow on the budget. Congrats, Minnesota: It’s a budget. After holding a public signing ceremony for the state’s education budget Thursday, DFL Gov. Tim Walz privately took his branded sharpie pen and signed the remaining bills that make up the state’s two-year, $48 billion budget, according to a release from his office on Friday. That includes the state’s health and human services budget, which boosts working-family cash grants for the first time in three decades, a tax bill that lines up state taxes with recent federal changes and cuts income tax rates for the first time in two decades, and a transportation budget bill that funds a move to scrap the problematic licensing and registration system known as MNLARS and start over with a new system. It also includes an agriculture budget that will put new money into mental health services for farmers and a small bonding bill that will pump millions into affordable housing projects. A bill to fund state government also authorizes the Secretary of State to tap into more than $6 million in federal funding to secure state elections. (MPR News)

3. Turns out MNLARS was good for something, after all. If it hadn’t been for an embarrassing state government computer system, Minnesota’s elected leaders might be bickering today about a state budget and headed toward a government shutdown. That paradoxical possibility was openly speculated by the three most important people in last month’s bipartisan budget compromise at the Capitol: Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman. MNLARS — the state’s beleaguered computer system for vehicle license plates and titles — had become an expensive challenge. Last month, they agreed to scrap the state-developed program and replace it with a yet-to-be-identified one developed in the private sector. It was a bipartisan compromise — and not an easy one. In reaching it, not only had they begun the exorcism of a bureaucratic demon that has vexed the state for more than two years, they had proven they could trust each other. It might sound hokey, but in interviews last week reflecting over the five-month legislative session and ultimate compromise, Walz, Gazelka and Hortman all said that rising to the MNLARS challenge made the past several weeks possible. “For me, the tone that was set by MNLARS and the trust that got built up there shaped the entire rest of the session,” Walz said. “It’s what ratcheted down the animosity. It’s what made compromise possible.” (Pioneer Press)

3. Outstate Minnesota advocates give session a mixed grade. New grants will make child care options easier for parents to come by and WiFi more readily available in pockets of the state that haven’t been able to access it. Farmers will see relief through an ag land tax credit and additional resources that could help offset a tumultuous year for dairy and soybean farmers. And public schools around the state will see state funding hikes over the next two years. More workforce housing will spring up in rural Minnesota and clean water infrastructure will be built and repaired to help pipe in drinking water. But local projects across the state will be delayed, and roads in some parts of the state will remain bumpy. What was promised as a One Minnesota state spending plan early on in the 2019 legislative session ended with a series of wins for Minnesotans living outside the Twin Cities. But those gains came with some missed opportunities, too, said local officials and those advocating for Greater Minnesota. (Forum News Service)

5. Achievement gaps persist after $5 billion in help. Minnesota has spent more than $5 billion in the last decade to boost the academic performance of low-achieving students, but the state has little ability to assess how the money is being used — or whether it’s making a difference. By one measure, it’s not. Stark differences in average reading and math scores for low-income students and their wealthier peers, and for whites and students of color, have remained stagnant or worsened during the past 10 years. What Minnesota calls “basic skills” aid is by far the largest single stream of funding aimed at closing the state’s achievement gap. Minnesota sends more than $600 million each year to school districts around the state, double what it was spending 15 years ago. The money comes with strings attached: School districts must spend it on any of a dozen strategies to help low-achieving students catch up with their peers. State law also requires districts to prepare annual reports that show how they spent the money and assess whether it helped to boost achievement levels. But a Star Tribune review of data from all of Minnesota’s more than 500 school districts shows major inconsistencies in how they track their spending of basic skills money. None of the school reports included the required documentation showing how the state aid affected student achievement. That makes it virtually impossible for lawmakers, educators or parents to know which of the permitted uses of the money — such as extending the school day, expanding reading, math and English-language programs, or hiring additional teachers and specialists — is proving most effective. (Star Tribune)

5. Former mayor, congressman Fraser dies. A soft-spoken and unassuming man, Don Fraser had staying power in the elected offices he held in St. Paul, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis over his nearly 40-year political career. He advocated for ideas ahead of his time, pushing for human rights reform while in Congress and championing the power of early childhood education during his years as mayor of Minneapolis. He remains the longest-serving mayor in the city's history. "In his own quiet way, he always won the day," said George Latimer, former mayor of St. Paul. Fraser died Sunday morning at home in Minneapolis, surrounded by family. He was 95. (Star Tribune)

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