Greater Minnesota funds could come out unscathed in budget fights
ST. PAUL -- Plans to make historic investments in Greater Minnesota could sail through fights at the Capitol over contentious pieces of Gov. Tim Walz's spending blueprint.
Some of the central tenets like a 20 cents per gallon gas tax hike and decision to keep in place a 2 percent tax on medical providers faced instant opposition from Minnesota Republicans when the Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor presented the proposal on Tuesday, Feb. 19.
But as Walz, the first Greater Minnesotan to take the governor's office in decades, laid out his plans for spending in rural parts of the state, leaders on both sides of the divided Legislature said they'd likely be on board with those ideas.
So while lawmakers spend the next three months entrenched in debates over hiking taxes and where taxpayer dollars would best be spent, proposals for expanding broadband to rural Minnesota, growing access to child care and boosting state funds aimed at making schools safer could be folded into a final budget later this year with little fuss.
“Those are a couple areas where I think we can find some common ground,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said on Wednesday, Feb. 20.
The bipartisan areas of agreement came as welcome news for groups hoping for additional state funding this year. Broadband development supporters last year saw dollars aimed at expanding access to high-speed internet in rural Minnesota get vetoed as part of an omnibus spending bill.
This time around, they said they're feeling optimistic.
“I think it gives us a really strong position going into the end of the legislative session,” Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition spokeswoman Judy Erickson said, pointing to bills that would boost funding for broadband expansion. "I think we have good momentum."
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said leaders in both political parties also agreed that transportation was an issue across the state, but they split on how to solve it. Winkler said House DFLers would likely back Walz's pitch to hike the gas tax by 20 cents per gallon over the next two years to fix crumbling roads and bridges.
“I don’t know if the Senate will ever like it, but everybody has to give something for us to put a budget together by the end of session," Winkler said. "If we don’t do it, we have another shutdown and nobody wants that. We have to find a way to common ground."
But Gazelka said that increase wouldn't make it through the Senate, where GOP lawmakers hold a two-seat advantage. And while his caucus hails in large part from rural Minnesota, the extra funding wouldn't offer enough leverage to fracture the majority in its opposition of the tax hike.
“We have a $1.5 billion surplus, maybe it will be less, but that certainly is a number that we can work to have a good budget that addresses the needs of all of Minnesota,” Gazelka said. “That is spending that we think is not wise, so we’re going to fight to say, ‘Let’s stay within the resources we have.'"