- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Gov. Mark Dayton put lawmakers seeking hefty tax cuts next year on notice: He’s not done seeking more money for early education.

Speaking Tuesday at a Minneapolis summer school program before joining kids in the classroom for a brief visit, and on the same day that Minnesota came out tops in a national ranking of children’s well-being, the Democratic governor said he won’t sign a tax bill next year unless it’s paired with an “equitable” amount of funding for Minnesota’s youngest learners.

His call could renew a squabble with the Legislature over education funding that dragged lawmakers into a special session this spring. They eventually agreed to send an extra $525 million to public schools with some earmarked for preschool programs and scholarships.

“I want to lay down the marker that we’re not done here,” Dayton said.

Republican lawmakers gave up this year on a tax relief package this year, leaving $900 million with the goal of turning some of to that purpose next year. On Tuesday, GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt said the Legislature should wait to see how far recent investments in early education go before adding more money. He said lawmakers should instead focus on tax relief and infrastructure repairs next year.

But for Dayton, a new report ranking Minnesota No. 1 in the nation for child wellbeing isn’t reason to stand pat. He said the high marks are a point of pride, but a deeper look at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s latest Kids Count report shows areas still ripe for improvement, like a yawning achievement gap and a middling preschool enrollment rate.

“It shows how far we have to go to get where we need to be,” Dayton said.

Dayton wouldn’t specify the shape or size of new education funding he’ll seek, including whether a failed push to fund a statewide preschool initiative should be back on the table. Any plan will hinge on the size of an expected budget surplus.

That sum could grow if the state’s recent string of good financial fortune keeps up - state officials announced earlier this month they had scooped up an additional $550 million in unexpected tax collections. A status check on the state’s surplus is due in November.

Republican Senate Minority Leader David Hann said he’s not concerned that Dayton’s new demand may water down GOP lawmakers’ plans to lower taxes, but that if the governor plans to push for free statewide preschool, he’ll face a tough path.

“If he wants to do that … he has not made his case at all,” he said. “I think it’s premature for the governor to say ‘We’re going to link these things together.’”

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