- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Minnesota’s Senate passed a pair of bills Monday to fund state agencies and Minnesota’s public colleges and universities, the first pieces to move as Senate Democrats and House Republicans stake out markedly different positions they’ll have to bridge in order to finalize the state’s $40 billion budget.

The Senate’s higher education budget would provide money for tuition freezes at public institutions and offer free tuition at community colleges to qualified high school graduates, while a bill that funds Minnesota’s state agencies starts making lease payments on a new $90 million office building for senators expected to open next year. In an unexpected turn, senators sent a strong signal to the owners of a Major League Soccer franchise with a near-unanimous vote to ban state funds from being used to build a new stadium.

Each bill passed largely along party lines, as Senate Republicans objected strongly to the office building payments after failing to strip them from the government budget bill. The higher education budget was less contentious, with Republicans mostly expressing concerns about the free college tuition proposal.

Monday’s move sets up the first of many likely clashes between the Democrat-controlled Senate and a Republican-majority House. In the House, their higher education budget provides funding for tuition freezes only at two-year colleges. And GOP House lawmakers included several measures in their own state agency budget bill to strip some of Gov. Mark Dayton’s executive authority, claw back a higher salary for the new Metropolitan Council chairman and make no payments for the new Senate office building.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he sent a letter to House Speaker Kurt Daudt last week urging the House not to include controversial policies that could jam up budget negotiations. Still, both Bakk and Daudt said they’re optimistic they can hammer out a final budget agreement with Dayton by the May 18 adjournment.

“I think that things will go smoothly,” Daudt said. “We should get out of here easily on time.”

Senate Republicans saved most of their ire for the $1 billion package funding state government operations. They offered several amendments that would have stripped payments for the new office building and offset raises Dayton may give his cabinet officials with cuts to state agencies. Each amendment failed, including a move to shift the $13 million due on the building over the next two years to veterans’ programs.

Democratic Sen. Richard Cohen of St. Paul argued that failing to make those lease payments would damage the state’s credit rating. But the money gave GOP senators another opening to rail against a building Republicans have branded as unnecessary waste.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann and other Republicans argued the building should have been financed through a public construction bill. Those bills require a three-fifths majority vote, meaning some Republicans would have needed to sign on in order for the building to pass.

“It was not more economical,” Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, said of the lease payment approach. “It was more expeditious.”

The bill passed 36-27, with one Democrat joining all Republicans to vote against it.

Senate Democrats’ $3.1 billion higher education budget passed 42-21, and Republicans spent most of their time questioning the plan to send qualified high school graduates to technical programs for free. GOP senators said the plan wouldn’t address the workforce shortages it was intended to solve.

“If you’ve been a student that’s out of high school for two years, you’re not eligible for this,” said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen. “If you have already been in college but need to retrain, you are not eligible for this program.”

Senators added a provision that would give the money only to students pursuing degrees in high-demand fields after Republican complaints that the original proposal was too broad.

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