Gov. Dayton's road trip focuses on service cuts

11:34 PM, Jul 12, 2011   |    comments
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  • Governor Dayton in Saint Cloud
  • Republican Steve Gottwalt of Saint Cloud

SAINT CLOUD, Minn. -- Governor Mark Dayton found a friendly crowd at Apollo High School Tuesday, many of them Democrats solidly in his corner and others who are Republicans pleased that he made this central Minnesota city the first stop on his statewide budget tour.

The longest government shutdown in the state's history wrapped up its 12th day Tuesday, with no new negotiations scheduled aimed at resolving the budget stalemate between the Democrat governor and Republican legislative leaders.

Dayton's road trip is designed to highlight threatened services as part of explaining why he didn't accept the legislature's version of the budget, even at the cost of a shutdown.

He had barely started to speak in St. Cloud when an audience member's phone rang. The ring tone was Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells," also known as The Exorcist movie theme.

"That's a good song," the governor ad libbed. "I don't get that on my phone!"

That lighter opening would soon give way to a serious subject Dayton came to highlight, which is the chronic funding gap fo special education. Public schools are required to provide services to special needs students from pre-school through the age of 21.

The Saint Cloud District is a regional hub which has seen a huge influx in demand for special education. At the same time the actual cost of providing those mandated services has outpaced available state and federal aid, forcing the district to cut in other areas and tap local property taxpayers for more operating revenue.

"This is a reminder of what's at stake for children with special needs. 129,000 school children around Minnesota in special education that would experience cuts in the Republican budget proposal," Dayton said.

In Saint Cloud that gap has risen to $9 million, and statewide, with all districts combined, the figure is approaching $700 million per year.

"When we go to the voters and they ask why are you short? Why can't you, quote, live within your means?" St. Cloud School Board member Jerry von Korff told the crowd in the high school's library.

"We don't run around and say it's the students with disabilities causing these problems, because, of course, they're not causing this problem. It's just the difference between revenues and expenditures."

He said if the mandated services were fully funded by the state and federal governments the district could end its special operating property tax levy and still have $4 million left over to put in reserves or spend on other curriculum.

Republicans reject at the notion that the cut special education spending in school finance bill that Dayton vetoed before the shutdown began.  They insist their version of the budget increases funding for special ed from the 2010-2011 cycle to the 2012-2013.

But the Department of Education's analysis of enrollment trends leads Dayton to believe the increased demand for special education will outstrip what was provided in that bill. It also is harder on urban hubs, such as St. Cloud, which absorbs special needs students from smaller surrounding districts.

Dayton said the legislature's calculations intentionally and "artificially" reduced projections for the number of students being qualifying for services in 2012-2013.

"To hear from those who are making due with even less money already, and with increasing numbers of children with special needs, to find out they'd be cut even further is just unacceptable."

Dayton called that one more argument for raising new revenue, and his preferred method is an income tax hike for the state's highest earners. He wants to cap spending at $35.7 billion in the two-year cycle, while Republicans have insisted that $34 billion the highest they'll go.

Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R - St. Cloud, said Dayton's spending plan will create future demand for raising taxes on other income groups.

"If we keep growing government spending at a double digit rate, we will be back two years from now with a deeper budget deficit looking for more tax revenue," Rep. Gottwalt told reporters Tuesday.

He pointed out the Republicans proposed spending $3 billion more in state money in 2012-2013, or six percent more than in 2010-2011.  But $2.3 billion of that replaces federal stimulus money used in the final budget of the Pawlenty era, funds that are no longer available.

And the starting point for that six percent figure is based on actual outlays of state and federal money. It doesn't count the $1.8 billion in commitments made to public schools to be paid at a later date. Dayton's budget department counts those I.O.U.'s as expenditures in the 2010-2011 cycle, but Republicans do not.

"We're trying to provide a sustainable future for Minnesota, because if we do not make promises we can keep to people who need us to keep them, then we're making promises we can't keep with money we don't have," Gottwalt remarked.

He repeated one of the key talking points of Republicans since the shutdown began, that Dayton and leaders were very close to a deal before talks broke down.  Gottwalt also said the education bill should be easy to pass, because the dollar amounts were nearly matched.

But school board member Mary Broderick pointed out that the details inside that bill are the sticking points, not just the dollar amounts.

"They be on the total dollars end be sort of close," Broderick told Gottwalt, "But they're not close in what it means to our students and our district and our community. That's the whole point here today."

Before the meeting ended Gottwalt invited Dayton to return to St. Cloud for a "lock-in" bargaining session to settle the matter once and for all.

"Let's get in a room and sit together until we get the budget done," Gottwalt said.

Dayton accepted the invitation provisionally, but only if Republican leaders send him a counter offer in writing detailing which new revenue sources they'll accept.

"I'm ready to come any time," Dayton said, "I want to get this done. I want to get this done fairly and in a balanced way. That's what I heard again today from people. It needs to be common sense and balanced."

Dayton's next stops are Rochester and Albert Lea.  He's expecting to encounter some public outrage about the shutdown.

When he opened up the St. Cloud meeting for public comment, the first speaker scolded all sides.  St. Cloud State environmental studies professor Anthony Akubue asked how the players at the Capitol could live with layoffs to state workers.

"Where is your conscience?! Where is your conscience?! It's not about you! It's about us who sent you there!"

Copyright 2011 by KARE. All rights reserved.

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