Student Opportunity Gaps

School Finance Check In: Underreach?

By April 14, 2013 No Comments

By Vernae Hasbargen, MREA Lobbyist

As the bill outline came into focus this week, MinnPost headlined, “Education advocates fearing DFL ‘under-reach.”

All session Democratic majorities have resisted Republican predictions they would “over-reach” with too many tax increases and new spending obligations.  Democrats, on the other hand, were determined to pay off the state’s $1.1 billion debt, get the state’s budget on sound footing, and pay for some new priorities as well.

 Agree and Disagree

Now it’s clear that the half a billion the House and Senate set aside for new education spending doesn’t go very far, so they decided the biggest bang-for-the-buck is investing earlier. Hence, both the Senate and House spend half their new dollars on All Day K and scholarships for early education programs.

After that the priorities diverge – the House wants more on the formula (2% and 2%) while the Senate forgoes formula increases (1% and 0%) and wants property taxes reduced. Those property taxes have increased 86% in 10 years.

It’s harder to sell schools on the advantages of property tax relief, but the Senate is sure students will benefit if they close the funding gap that’s been opened by over-reliance on referenda.

And the Governor?

He spent even less on K-12 in his budget, but his top priority was changing the cost-driven special ed formula to reduce the growing “cross-subsidy” that results when state and federal funding falls short. It’s been estimated almost 70% of referendum dollars are needed to pay those costs.

Legislators chose to wait a year before tackling that big task.

Paying For It

In the long term, the Senate wants a return to a General Education Levy that the state eliminated when it took over education funding in 2001. Many believe that was the beginning of the roller-coaster ride in state budget deficits and over-reliance on property taxes to fund schools.

Senator Stumpf, who chaired K-12 during most of that ride, is determined it will create more stability as well as fairness. But the business community isn’t so sure. Business leaders fear a general levy increases their obligation to pay for schools and as a  Republican legislator put it, would cause education to “go hog-wild” with spending.

In the short term, the focus now shifts from spending to raising the revenue to pay for it. Watch for that roller-coaster ride in the next few weeks.