I thought I would start things off with something upbeat to commemorate the occasion and I settled on ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky. The clouds that threatened the early days of the 2021 legislative session have vanished and a strong education bill has been passed and a government shutdown has been avoided (just in the nick of time). While the overall budget target for the E-12 bill is not appreciably larger than recent history (especially when inflation is factored into the equation), if someone would have told me when the Legislature kicked off the session on January 5 that the E-12 budget target for this biennium would be $546 million, I would have definitely taken the under on a bet. But the February budget forecast was up dramatically and that provided legislators in both bodies with the resources they needed to make their legislative statements.
The initial targets for the House and Governor were higher on the spending side and were somewhat reliant on the passage of tax increases. Across the partisan street, the Senate concentrated more on tax relief and, as a result, had much lower spending targets. As has happened in the recent past in Minnesota’s divided Legislature, this produced a collision where the sides met near the middle with lower spending targets and no tax increases.
The centerpiece of the omnibus education bill is clearly the 2.45%/2% increases in the basic formula for the next biennium. As I have written before, when the budget target of $525 million was initially set (subsequently raised to $546 million), I didn’t think there was any way that the 2%/2% initiative that a vast majority of education lobbying groups set out as their goal would be possible. I assumed (and remember what people say about what assuming makes one) that the final bill would look almost identical to what was agreed upon in 2019, when the special education cross-subsidy hold-harmless was fully funded and the voluntary pre-kindergarten slots were protected. This year, they opted to put money on the formula instead of funneling it toward maintaining the level of the special education cross-subsidy at its current level, which was standard practice prior to a couple of biennia ago. Prior to that, putting money on the formula was the automatic default position and this bill returns to that approach. There will be distributional effects as districts with special education cross-subsidies well above the state average would benefit from state action to hold them where they are instead of putting dollars on the formula. Districts with lower cross-subsidies obviously benefit from the approach that this bill takes.
It is similar in the case of the 4,000 voluntary pre-kindergarten program slots that the bill protects. If a district does not participate in this program, the formula would have obviously been of greater benefit, but in the absence of this funding initiative, the pre-kindergarten programs in participating districts may have disappearned entirely. There is an impression that all 4,000 of these slots are in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and a few inner-ring suburbs. That isn’t the case as a number of districts well outside the metropolitan area are reliant on this funding.
Those are the largest moving parts in the bill and while neither side got all that they wanted, that is the nature of negotiations and the final bill is a very good piece of work.
A special session was probably unavoidable this year given the nature, timing, and amount of the Federal relief packages and trying to gauge the effects of fourteen months of reaction to COVID-19. As a long time observor of the process, I think those were the major complications as opposed to other explanations that have arisen regarding how the legislative machinery has changed over time. My guess is we’ll know more next year when session kicks in again on January 31, 2022, and will likely run all the way to the constitutionally-mandated end date of May 23, 2022. It will be an election year with a gubernatorial race and the entire legislature running in newly-drawn legislative districts. Should be fun . . . maybe.
So in closing, as the current comes down on the 2021 special session, I think Kurt Vonnegut wrote it first and Nick Lowe sang it about a decade later: So it goes.