The one thing you can say in favor of the legislative session that just wrapped up is: it could have been longer.
At least DFL and Republican lawmakers didn’t charge the people of Minnesota much in the way of extra salary for the privilege of:
- Making school districts take out payday loans to stay in business.
- Making cities and counties cut services and raise your property taxes.
- Failing to put a dent in a looming 2011-2012 state budget deficit.
- Missing out on federal dollars for education and health care that could have helped reduce that deficit.
- Raising higher education tuition while making colleges and universities cut their offerings.
- Ratifying last year’s unallotment cuts to services for Minnesota’s most vulnerable while handing out yet more tax breaks to the wealthy.
- Cutting health care coverage for some.
- Raising hospital rates for all.
Actually, there’s a second positive thing you can say about this session. They ran out of time to give the Vikings money for a new stadium.
It could have been worse, DFLers will say. True, I suppose. But before we look at the what-might-have-beens, let’s focus on what is and what will be.
Kicking the can down the road
First and foremost, DFL lawmakers controlling both the Minnesota House of Representatives and Minnesota Senate once again couldn’t beat Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the game of “My Way or the Highway” he has played so well in the last eight years.
Handed a judicial victory by the Minnesota Supreme Court that invalidated $2.7 billion in unilateral cuts last year by Pawlenty, including delayed payments to school districts, cuts in aid to cities and counties, higher education and programs that serve children, the elderly, disabled and poor in Minnesota, DFL lawmakers ended up shrugging their shoulders and passing most of those cuts into law this year.
Yes, they made a future legislature and governor promise to start paying the $1.9 billion K-12 payment shift back starting next year. But in the meantime, school districts will have to further draw down their reserve funds, if they still exist, to maintain cash flow while waiting for the delayed state payments. Or they’ll have to borrow against those payments and pay it back with interest later.
Mental health, child support, personal care services for the disabled, child care and more services for Minnesota’s most vulnerable residents will all see cuts as a result of the budget agreement, which cuts more than $100 million from the state’s Health and Human Services budget, though nursing homes were spared.
This is on top of $312 million in cuts DFLers came up with earlier in the session themselves, including an additional $52.5 million of reductions in state aid to cities and counties, on top of the $200 million in Pawlenty’s unallotment. It also included $47 million in cuts to colleges and universities around the state on top of the $100 million already in Pawlenty’s unallotment.
Even with all those cuts, lawmakers didn’t make a dent in the estimated $5.8 billion state budget deficit the next Legislature and governor will face. By basing so much of this year’s budget-balancing on accounting shifts, and by making the cuts they did agree to temporary, lawmakers next year will have to eliminate a deficit almost twice the size of the one this Legislature kicked down the road.
Dollars, chances left behind
Meanwhile, a “compromise” on early Medicaid expansion that could have brought $1 billion in extra federal dollars to Minnesota and replaced the swiss-cheese retooling of the state’s General Assistance Medical Care program for the state’s poorest leaves it to Pawlenty, or the next occupant of the governor’s office, to decide when and whether to sign on. Pawlenty already indicated he might not, and Republican cries of “Obamacare” will probably make sure the application gets left in the governor’s desk, unsigned when he moves out next year.
DFL lawmakers say they won one from Pawlenty by getting him to add $10 million to that GAMC fix in the budget deal. But for 39,000 poor, childless Minnesotans who will see their coverage change on June 1, the news will come as little relief.
They will be funneled to one of four hospitals in the Twin Cities that have signed on to the program and will receive $71 million to treat them — less than half of what they received from the state last year. Another $30 million will be available to cover outstate Minnesotans eligible for the program, which will only provide emergency care at a hospital — no preventative treatment that could save higher medical bill costs down the road.
Hospitals have already indicated they may have to freeze employment or lay off staff to cut costs. And the more charity care they have to provide, the more pressure builds to increase rates for insured patients. So don’t be surprised when your hospital bills start going up to pay for what they’re losing on the other end.
Pawlenty and lawmakers also left federal education dollars lying on the table. Their inability to come together on education reforms means the state likely won’t reapply for federal Race to the Top program funding for next year. That means Minnesota’s money-starved K-12 educational system will have no chance of getting the $175 million in extra funding over the next four years that the program provides.
Education Minnesota, Pawlenty and lawmakers couldn’t agree on alternative teacher licensing criteria, performance evaluations and pay for performance issues and a last-minute attempt to introduce a K-12 bill during this week’s special session failed to get Republican support because it was not part of the overall budget deal.
DFLers say they tried to add some new revenues to the mix, and they did put a new top-tier income tax rate into their first attempt at a budget-balancing bill. Other new revenues, including higher provider taxes to pay for the Medicaid expansion and closing tax loopholes, were also offered as ways to blunt some of the impact of the cuts DFLers agreed to. All of them fell to Pawlenty’s veto pen and House Republicans vowed to uphold those vetoes.
But in the end, this was Pawlenty’s session and signature statement on what kind of presidential candidate he wants to be. He leaves the governor’s office bragging that state spending decreased 10 percent in the last two years under his watch, and if you’re a Republican voter, maybe that’s all you need to hear.
Putting Lipstick on the Pig
What can DFL lawmakers running for re-election, or House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, running for the DFL’s gubernatorial nomination, say to put some lipstick on this pig of a session?
Well, there’s the $1 billion bonding bill they passed early on in the session. Of course, Pawlenty cut it down to under $700 million with his line-item veto pen, but crafting a state construction projects bill was supposed to be the reason behind this year’s session.
There’s a so-called jobs bill that provides tax credits for rich investors and small business owners if they back new businesses or hire employees.
Most of the rest of the story will involve talking about the bad things they prevented, such as making the cuts permanent, cutting funding to nursing homes and K-12, keeping Pawlenty from cutting taxes for his business friends and so on.
Other dogs that didn’t bark this session included a push for a vote this fall on a constitutional amendment to revamp the state’s judicial election system, a Pawlenty push to lengthen prison sentences for sex offenders instead of treating them in psychiatric facilities, a proposal to raise money by adding slot machines to Canterbury Park, and of course, the Vikings stadium.
Oh well. The next governor and legislature will go to work on those issues and the $5.8 billion state budget deficit on January 4 of next year. I’m sure they’ll work it all out.