ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Senate Democrats proposed Wednesday spending a $900 million budget surplus on expanding preschool options, tackling racial economic disparities and a package of public works projects, setting them on a collision course with House Republicans who want all the extra cash for tax cuts and road and bridge repairs.
The Senate’s rough budget roadmap calls for putting $300 million toward tax relief, with a mix of property tax cuts for homeowners and farmers and measures meant to spur hiring in areas with high unemployment. There’s $85 million to expand broadband Internet infrastructure, millions of dollars to address teacher and school counselor shortages and more than $100 million in leftovers that could go toward construction projects across the state.
It’s starkly different from the plan advancing in the Republican-controlled House, where lawmakers have outlined few additional spending priorities in order to focus on transportation funding and unspecified tax cuts. That divide is a holdover from budget battles last year, when lawmakers required an overtime session to work out widely different positions and finalize a two-year budget.
On this second budget go-around, nothing is a must-pass: Lawmakers could leave without passing any bills. With the clock ticking toward the Legislature’s May 23 conclusion, the negotiations between legislative leaders may not start for weeks.
“There is still plenty of time but yeah, we’re a long ways apart,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said.
With each chamber’s course charted, the House and Senate will spend the next few weeks piecing together their own budget proposals. As they turn an eye toward hashing out bipartisan agreements, Bakk painted the Senate as in lockstep with fellow Democrat and Gov. Mark Dayton.
Their proposal earmarks about $25 million for early education, matching the governor’s request to set up a scaled-back version of a universal preschool program that would target impoverished areas with few other options. Though the final size of a public construction package is still unclear, Bakk said the Senate would come closer to - or even exceed - Dayton’s $1.4 billion proposal. The House has suggested a $600 million so-called bonding bill.
It also sets aside $90 million for job-training programs and tax credits to tackle longstanding economic disparities between white and black Minnesota residents. Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said a new committee is just starting to run through a bevy of options to decide which proposals will get that money.
But the top priority, Democratic Sen. Richard Cohen said, was ensuring that the Legislature “will absolutely not put the state in deficit next year.”
Republican Senate Minority Leader David Hann said Democrats’ proposal fell far short in that regard.
“This spending proposal is reckless and unsustainable,” he said. “Yesterday we heard Minnesota income tax revenues are falling $70 million behind forecast and the economy is slowing down. Today the Senate DFL answers with $800 million in new spending, eating up the entire budget surplus.”
Highlighting a major clash between the two parties, House Speaker Kurt Daudt criticized the Senate’s plan for not putting money toward a transportation funding package. Senate Democrats are still pushing for a gas tax increase, and House Republicans haven’t yet detailed how much of the surplus they plan to put toward infrastructure fixes.
“With a $900 million surplus, I cannot believe Democrats are spending almost nothing on roads and bridges,” Daudt said in a statement.
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