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Senate proposes 3.2 percent education cut

ST. PAUL - The governor would increase public school education funding 2.2 percent.

But Minnesota House leaders propose keeping education for the next two years at about the same level as in the budget that ends on June 30.

And on Wednesday, Senate Democrats proposed cutting education funding 3.2 percent, setting up parameters for the school funding debate that will share the spotlight with taxes and other issues as Minnesota legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty get down to serious budget-writing work.

Last month, Senate leaders said they would cut education funding 7 percent, but now have added federal economic stimulus money to soften the blow. Federal funds mean about half of the proposed $1 billion cut is filled in.

It still is a big cut, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said.

"We are taking a pretty good reduction in actual general fund dollars," Stumpf, chairman of the Senate education finance committee, said about a $500 million cut from current spending.

The chairman said Senate Democrats, who hold a majority of the chamber's members, decided all agencies need to be part of the state's budget-balancing efforts.

The education section is a key part of the state budget since it is nearly $14 billion of what is expected to be a $32 billion two-year budget.

The overall budget would face a deficit of $6.4 billion if not for federal economic stimulus money, combined with program cuts and new revenue, such as tax increases.

Pawlenty says education is important enough that it deserves more money, even with the current recession hurting state tax collections.

Stumpf said the Senate's proposed 3.2 percent cut would be softened even more after the federal government sends local school districts added aid for a variety of programs, including special education.

Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, however, warned that federal money presents a future danger. Since it is expected to be sent to schools only once, Olson said there is a danger of budget problems beginning in 2012 if the funds are spent for on-going programs.

On the other hand, Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said the federal money is a lifesaver.

"This really does exactly what it was supposed to do, that is to give us some time during this (rough) economic time to put things together," Bonoff said.