Politics and Government

MN House Democrats seek more early childhood funding

Minnesota House Democratic leaders line up for a news conference.
Minnesota House Democratic leaders line up for a news conference on Thursday at the Capitol in St. Paul.
Steve Karnowski | AP Photo

Minnesota House Democrats want to spend as much as $500 million of the state's projected $1.3 billion budget surplus on a one-time bump in spending on early childhood education and child care, their leaders announced Thursday as they rolled out their agenda for the 2020 session.

Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, of Golden Valley, and other leading Democrats acknowledged at a news conference that there's no guarantee that the 2021 Legislature will choose to continue the spending increases, but that they hope funds will be found in the future.

“We think the most important thing is to get kids off to the right start,” Hortman said. “And in order to close the ‘opportunity gap,’ we have to look at those littlest learners.”

The speaker also said House Democrats will continue the work they began in the 2019 session after they regained the majority. Other priorities for the session, which opens Tuesday, will include gun violence prevention, affordable insulin, paid family and medical leave, and climate change, she said.

Reps. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, of Eden Prairie, and David Pinto, of St. Paul, said they want to make sure that about 4,000 children currently enrolled in expiring prekindergarten program seats are able to continue in them, and to create more Early Learning Scholarships.

Early Learning Scholarships are aimed at increasing access to programs for improving school readiness for children with the highest needs. The Legislature has paid for most prekindergarten slots for low-income families piecemeal instead of with permanent funding.

Hortman said they would like to spend around $190 million for Early Learning Scholarships and $60 million to preserve existing prekindergarten slots. She said they're also going to seek $190 million more for the state's Child Care Assistance Program, which helps low-income families pay for child care so parents can work or go to school.

“Even though we can't make a commitment to fund these early childhood scholarships for the 3-year-olds for the next 20 years, it doesn't mean we should let this year's 3-year-olds go without an opportunity if we have the money sitting there,” Hortman said.

In the Republican-led Senate, Majority Leader Paul Gazelka reiterated Wednesday that his caucus wants to use the surplus to fully exempt Social Security from the state income tax, in keeping with the Senate GOP agenda announced last month. But Hortman rejected that as a tax cut for the rich.