K-12 education, Twins among competitors for funds

Tracy Ellingson

and Chris Vetter

The fate of the University’s budget request hinges on the outcome of several unique and weighty issues facing the state Legislature as it opens its session today.
The Legislature will tackle several one-time issues in this year’s session, from dealing with national welfare reform to deciding whether to fund a new baseball stadium for the Twins. The large state surplus this year, estimated at $1.4 billion, has several organizations hoping they will receive a hefty portion of public funds.
The University will be competing with several organizations and groups for public dollars:

ùThe debate over the use of public funds for a new outdoor baseball stadium will be a key issue this session in determining how much money will be available for other projects and programs. Stadium supporters are seeking $300 million for the new ballpark.
Many state legislators oppose public funding of a stadium, which would likely be built a few blocks northeast of the Metrodome. Gov. Arne Carlson and several Minneapolis businesses, however, support it.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, whose district includes the University’s St. Paul campus, has been a leader in opposing the new ballpark.
“In times of rising property taxes, and with no money, this is absolutely wrong,” Marty said. The public funding would be better directed elsewhere, he said.
Several Republican legislators, including House minority leader Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, also oppose publicly funding the stadium.
“I don’t think it is the mission of government and public dollars to use (them) toward professional sports,” Sviggum said.
ù Carlson outlined plans to return $261 million directly to the taxpayers when he announced his ideas for dealing with the surplus. But because property taxes have gradually risen over the past several years, many legislators prefer to use that money to create changes in state property tax laws.
Because they feel the current property tax system is too complex, several legislators favor giving it an overhaul to make it easier to administer.
Rep. Dee Long, DFL-Minneapolis, chairwoman of the House Tax committee, said property tax reform can be more easily accomplished by using surplus state funds as a cushion for the installed changes.
“One reason for change is the complexity of the current system,” Long said. “Property taxes have been increasing for a number of years, and that is a reason for concern.”

ù As higher education strives for more money, the governor has already stated his desire to use $305 million for K-12 education. But certain proposals in Carlson’s K-12 education plan have created a rift between the governor and DFL legislators.
Carlson presented his outline for the state’s education funding early this December. Minnesota teacher’s unions and DFL legislators greeted the plan with approval at certain points — such as improved student achievement — but criticized the governor’s proposal to offer tax credits and deductions to parents who send their children to private school.
DFL legislators have said the proposal too closely resembles the voucher system the governor has long advocated. Members of the DFL say they have consistently opposed vouchers because they benefit parents of private-school students, not low-income families.
The Legislature rejected Carlson’s last voucher proposal, which provided $15 million to families who send children to private schools in Minneapolis, Brooklyn Center and St. Paul.
Under Carlson’s surplus proposal, $150 million would be used for tax credits and deductions over the next two years for parents who send their children to private schools. However, the governor’s staff has said about three-fourths of the state funding would benefit public school parents.
“I think this is a common issue that will cause a lot of vigorous debate, and I think it should,” Rep. Alice Johnson, DFL-Spring Lake Park, of the House Education K-12 committee. The DFL will likely raise initiatives to oppose Carlson’s plans for tax credits.
Carlson might find DFL and Republican legislators alike more receptive to his plans for improving student achievement. The governor’s proposal calls for more uniform standardized achievement testing of all state students, training for teachers, additional funding for the expansion of charter schools — alternative schools in which teachers or other educators design innovative programs of instruction — and an educational technology network.
Rep. Harry Mares, R-White Bear Lake, of the House Education K-12 committee, said he thinks Carlson’s plans for student achievement won’t meet serious opposition.
“There has to be some type of accountability to show who we are and where we want to go,” Mares said. “And we should use the funding to improve the system, not destroy it.”
ù Legislators will open their new year saying, “out with the old and in with the new” as they devise a new state welfare system.
Because Congress eliminated the old federal welfare system, the responsibility of developing a new one has been passed to state legislators across the country. Each state is expected by July 1 to have its own welfare plan.
Some legislators expect their work on the welfare plans to face major challenges, particularly in meeting some of the guidelines the federal government has implemented and dealing with certain federal reductions, such as funding for food stamps and aid to legal immigrants.
The new federal welfare law, which President Clinton approved last August, includes a five-year life-time cap on welfare use and requires parents receiving welfare to find a job within two years. Financial penalties fall on states that do not follow the federal guidelines.
Legislators will likely be divided on the issues of giving additional benefits to mothers who have another child while on welfare, making up for federal aid cuts and residency requirements for welfare applicants.
One proposed model, which provides working welfare parents with a wage subsidy, has already been implemented in eight Minnesota counties and has received wide bipartisan support. The plan would cost the state more than the current system when applied on a statewide level, however.