Our Viewpoint: Will our legislative leaders miss a great opportunity?

Minnesota’s legislative leaders started 2015 with a pleasant conundrum: How to proceed through the biennial budget process knowing you’ve got a $2 billion surplus.

Dozens of uses for those billions quickly surfaced – from big ticket items like Gov. Dayton’s pet project, universal preschool for all 4-year-olds at $373 million – to modest proposals such as funding additional training for first responders to deal with potential rail disasters.

Republicans touted the idea of expansive tax relief, giving back much of the surplus to the taxpayers.

Senate Democrats added some practical suggestions, including beefing up the state’s cash reserve and earmarking funds for transportation.

Several significant pieces of legislation did pass. A higher education bill offered additional funds to the University system and to MnSCU. Child protection initiatives received $52 million. The omnibus Health and Human Services policy bill will help nursing homes by changing the way nursing homes are reimbursed by Medicaid. An additional $42 million will fund initiatives to help the mentally ill.

At times during the session, three sides were at odds with each other. Dayton stood firm to his Pre-K proposal, even though he did not have solid support from many DFLers and most Republicans.

As the session deadline loomed, consensus was far away. Legislation required to keep the state running was pushed to the final few days – even into the final hours ‑ of the session.

After the dust cleared, Gov. Dayton vetoed three of the main funding bills, making a special session necessary to fund K-12 schools, the DNR and the Department of Commerce. Everyone agreed that some type of preschool additional funding would be a good idea. Yet in the end, the agreement reached by the Senate and House on education was not enough to please the governor.

Another Dayton initiative, buffer zones for all state waterways, was included in a modified version in the final environment bill, which Dayton vetoed partly because the bill eliminated the Citizen’s Review Board of the Pollution Control Agency.

Dayton objected to the economic and jobs bill partly because it did not allocate enough funds to help bring broadband Internet to rural areas.

The vetoes sent our legislative leaders – Gov. Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk – into private discussions to wrangle over the details and find some common ground. They are struggling to find agreement on the three key bills that must be passed in the next few days in order to prevent a partial government shutdown.

The public and the rest of our elected officials have been locked out of the process. Transparency is non-existent.

We can only view the 2015 session with a sense of disappointment. Key measures that would have put our state on solid ground – such as increasing the cash reserve and expanding tax credits for low-income families – did not pass.

Our State Capitol renovation project is in jeopardy because necessary funding was not approved.

And most frustrating of all, no progress was made on developing a long-range improvement plan and securing dedicated funding for state transportation needs.

The opportunity presented by an impressive budget surplus has been squandered.

More than any other time, our leaders need to accept compromise and give up a few pet projects. Ideally, they will also take our disappointment to heart and resolve to “get it right” before the 2016 legislature convenes.

At the beginning of the session, we said in an ECM Editorial Board editorial: “Let’s save a little, spend a little and give a little back. Common sense – not politics – should prevail.”

We reiterate that statement and hope the next week will be filled with the common sense compromise needed to keep Minnesota moving forward. Our leaders have one more chance to seize a great opportunity for our state. – An opinion from the ECM Publishers Editorial Board

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