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Lawmakers begin final push with big differences to resolve

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House DFL leaders Liz Olson, Ryan Winkler and Melissa Hortman listen to a question about their budget bills and the last month of session. Brian Bakst | MPR News

Gov. Tim Walz and top legislative leaders were sounding optimistic Tuesday about competing their work on a new, two-year budget in the remaining month of the 2019 session, but some big hurdles remain.

Lawmakers returned to action after their Easter/Passover break with several budget bills on the agenda.

The DFL House was debating an E-12 education bill, with a debate on a jobs and energy measure up next that includes a provision for paid family leave. The Republican Senate was taking up an agriculture bill and an environment and natural resources bill.

“This is the beginning of the end,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.

Both bodies are scheduled to hold lengthy floor sessions each day this week to pass budget bills. Then House and Senate negotiators will need to work out many significant differences in those bills.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said leaders are already looking for ways to compromise.

“Sometimes leaders dwell on where are we different,” Hortman said. “We’re working very hard, Senator Gazelka and I, to find where is the common ground.”

Walz, a DFLer in his first term, said he too is hopeful about reaching agreement and finishing on time, but he added that Senate Republicans need to provide more information about their budget bills.

His chief finance adviser, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans, shared a similar message during an appearance before the Senate Finance Committee. Frans warned that fundamental differences in legislative spending proposals could cause problems in the remaining weeks.

“The governor sent me here today to communicate that the budget position as seen at this time does not represent a realistic opening bargaining position, from our point of view,” Frans said.

In the DFL-led House, the education bill spends more than $20 billion over the next two years on early learning through high school. That’s $900 million more than the state spends now.

Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, said the bill meets the needs of schools statewide.

“We put our money where our mandates are and we invest in our future. We are making a down payment on system change in our schools so that our children’s zip codes will not determine their lot in life,” she said.

Much of the new money would be delivered through the per-student allowance, which would rise 3 percent in the first year and 2 percent the second year. 

"The Democrats are making a promise to schools they know they can't keep," said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. "We all support making sure schools are funded and they have the resources they need, but this bill is unrealistic."

He said the extra money is dependent on higher taxes which Republicans oppose. The Republican-led Senate also would boost education spending but at a lower rate. The chambers will attempt to craft a final bill in May.

The House bill also drew lawmakers into a lengthy debate over sexual health education. The bill calls for development of a model sex ed curriculum that is "age and developmentally appropriate" and that could cover anatomy, reproduction, sexual consent and diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Parents would be allowed to review the curriculum in their district and choose whether to pull their children from the courses.

Republicans objected and said the proposal still goes too far on a sensitive topic.

Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, said the curriculum "is the clear definition of offending little ones and polluting their minds with content they are not ready for at elementary ages."

Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podin, DFL-New Brighton, said Republicans were "fear-mongering." She said she previously taught the subject.

"There are many parents who came to me and said 'thank you for talking to my kid about this because it opened up the conversations,'" she said. "A lot of times the students don't know how to approach their parents with questions."

The guaranteed paid family leave plan would require employers to give compensated time off to new parents or people helping deal with a serious family illness.

Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, said Minnesota is behind the curve.

“We know that in states that have paid family leave there are fewer families that have to rely on public programs," she said. "We know that it has a huge impact on the number of women in particular who are able to stay in the workforce, who are able to join the workforce.”

But Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, said the payroll tax used to support it and the general burden on small companies are too high.

“There are going to be times when they have to replace these employees on sick and save time with someone they don’t have because there is only one person that does that job, and often these business will have to close until that person gets back," Gunther said.

The Senate has yet to advance a bill for family leave, making it a topic for those end-of-session discussions right around the corner.

MPR reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this story.