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As Senate Approves Budget, Dayton Urges Restraint

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton urged lawmakers Tuesday to spend less of Minnesota’s budget surplus now that the state finally has escaped its deficit days.

His warning came as the Senate voted 37-27 for a budget proposal that devotes more money to preschool programs, financial assistance to college students and allowances for caregivers for the disabled and elderly, among other priorities. The combined spending in the Senate bill is $209 million, or roughly two-thirds the size of a companion House bill.

“I don’t question the wisdom or value of almost every proposal that I’m aware of, but they add up to quite a bit of money,” Dayton told reporters.

Dayton wouldn’t say what he considers an ideal size or if he’d exercise his line-item veto to pare back the amount of spending.

Earlier this year, he suggested that $165 million of the state’s $1.2 billion surplus be used to augment existing programs, but he has expressed openness to more items since. He and lawmakers rallied around more than $400 million in tax breaks last month and generally agree they will pursue another $100 million before the session ends. They also have agreed to put $150 million into a rainy-day reserve.

Tuesday’s Senate action is far from final. It sets the stage for budget negotiators between the Senate and House, both controlled by Democrats, to begin working on a unified proposal to send to Dayton. That process will extend past Easter.

As he laid out the budget bill before the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Richard Cohen worked to counter impressions that it spent too much. He described the focus as limited in the context of a $39 billion two-year budget.

“This is a relatively small bill, but it does some important things,” said Cohen, DFL-St. Paul.

Almost 40 percent of the money — about $80 million — would pay for a 5 percent rate increase for long-term care workers. It is meant to assure competitive pay and reduce high turnover among the state’s 90,000 personal caregivers for people served in home- or community-based setting rather than nursing homes.

That initiative has garnered broad support at the Capitol.

Senate Republicans were upset that the provision was couched in a broader bill, forcing them to accept more spending than they’d like or vote against the 5 percent caregiver boost they favor.

“Hiding this gem, this very needed piece of legislation, in the middle of this 492-page bill with lots of other things, I think it’s a travesty,” said Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester.

The Senate proposal also sets aside $2 million next year to help nursing homes absorb an expected increase in the state’s minimum wage in a separate bill headed for a final vote soon.

While the Senate budget bill overlaps with the House plan in several areas, it differs in others. The most notable departure is in the area of education.

The House-approved bill would provide school districts with an extra $58 per student. The Senate focuses extra education dollars on the youngest learners, by putting more than $20 million into preschool and school readiness programs. More families would qualify for early learning scholarships to attend high-quality child care centers, for instance.

Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said the money is “targeted to those students most at risk, those students most needing assistance, those students most likely to fall through the cracks and needing remediation.”

Lawmakers are under no obligation to earmark every dollar of the projected surplus. Any money that doesn’t get spent would be available when the next two-year budget is set in 2015.

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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