Minnesota State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-59) gathered local lawmakers at his Jan. 22 town hall meeting at the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) in north Minneapolis (2001 Plymouth Ave. N.) to discuss policy objectives for the 2015 session.
This year’s session, which will determine the state’s 2016-2017 biennial budget, convened on Jan. 6 and all legislation must be settled by May 18. Senate fiscal analysts have forecasted that just over 40 percent of the state’s $41.2 billion projected general spending for the 2016-2017 fiscal years will be dedicated to kindergarten-12th grade education.
Funding for public education in Minnesota is among the highest in the nation, yet inner city public schools and early childhood education programs so far remain brazenly neglected. State Sen. Chuck Wiger (DFL-43), chair of the Senate Education Committee, promises to make funding for early childhood education his highest priority.
“We have a constitutional obligation to educate our students,” said Wiger. “Numerous studies have shown that (students) are more likely to do well in college and succeed in life if they are ready for kindergarten. Opportunity should not be based on one’s income or zip code.”
Children who come from at-risk households are entering school already at a disadvantage, and are more likely to cost the state money in the long run if they do not succeed academically, said Wiger. State Sen. Kathy Sheran of Mankato (DFL-19), chair of the Senate Health, Human Services, and Housing Committee, argued that health disparities and the cycle of poverty are in part caused by an inadequate education system, and by a biased judicial system.
Sheran strongly favors leniency in youth crimes and other lower-level crimes in order to alleviate economic dependence on the state after the education system has failed its students. During the 2015 session, she is hoping to enact reforms to the civil commitment system currently being used to extend incarceration time long after a sentence has been served.
“We’ve seen tremendous resistance to (these types of developments) and very little empathy.” said Sheran.
Public health and human services in Minnesota currently encompasses roughly a third of the general fund. However, most legislators agree that lessening Minnesota’s disparities in education and judicial practices will lower the amount that the state has to spend on issues of poverty over time.
Even though the Senate maintained a DFL majority in last November’s elections, they are now the minority in the Minnesota House of Representatives and many feel lawmakers will be hard-pressed to make progressive policy changes in the 2015 legislative session.
Even making legislative reforms in funding for transportation improvements, for example, has historically been particularly difficult. Unlike other public services, transportation projects are primarily funded through related sales taxes and fees, rather than receiving an allocation from the state general fund.
According to State Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-61), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, the entire state transportation budget is only a quarter of the amount that other metropolitan areas spend – that are roughly the same size – on transportation improvements.
“We need to keep up with what other metropolitan areas around the country are spending on transportation and keep up with what we’ve got, because it’s crumbling,” said Dibble. “Here we are in 2015, still trying to fix the problem.”
State Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-59B), however, who has represented downtown Minneapolis up to Broadway Avenue North since 2012, expects that the legislature will be able to make fair compromises under the guidance of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton during the 2015 legislative session that will improve the overall wellbeing of the state.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Dehn. “But we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to do it.”