Gov. Dayton's ire looms as Legislature races to pass budget

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota's legislative session steamed toward a rocky end Saturday as Gov. Mark Dayton dug in for more education spending, threatening to strike down a plan until lawmakers find more money for schools and a preschool initiative.

"I'll say it again and I'll say it again and I'll say it again: I'm going to veto (the education bill) because it's wrong for the people of Minnesota," the Democratic governor said. "If they're going to force a special session, it's their doing, not mine."

It's a stark warning to legislative leaders who late Friday night announced an agreement on a two-year, $41.5 billion budget that preserves a subsidized health care program for the working poor and pumps an extra $400 million into public schools. The rush was on to finish writing the bills before Sunday to pass them quickly.

The deal defers two of the session's top priorities — transportation funding and tax cuts — until next year. But it was the disagreement over education funding sparked discord among Minnesota Democrats.

Dozens of Democrats in the House and even some in the Senate have joined Dayton's call to tap into extra money left over for taxes and infrastructure, and the state Democratic Party mobilized on the governor's behalf. The divide stands as one the largest potential road block as the Legislature creeps toward Monday's midnight deadline. Lawmakers were expected to work around the clock to send bills to the governor.

Dayton said much of the rest of the overall deal could earn his signature. But he challenged the Legislature to put up an additional $150 million for education, including funding for half-day preschool statewide — a top priority that gained little steam this legislative session.

"There's plenty of money to do justice" to schools, Dayton said, keying in on the state's nearly $1.9 billion projected surplus and the $1 billion top lawmakers plan to leave in the state's coffers to pursue tax relief and transportation funding next year.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and House Speaker Kurt Daudt vowed to move ahead with their own plan anyway.

"We're not trying to poke the governor or anything like that," Daudt said. "We need to get this done on time and we need to live within the parameters of what the overall spirit of what the agreement was."

Bakk, a Democrat who clashed publicly with Dayton at other points during the five-month session, counted himself among those who want to spend more on schools. But he warned Dayton that holding out for extra education cash could result in schools coming up largely empty-handed. Without the governor's sign-off on a new budget bill, schools will keep receiving the same funding levels from the last two years though there is some disagreement about how the state would issue the checks if the Department of Education gets shuttered in July.

"I think the governor just needs to kind of dig deep and think: The speaker and I both gave up our No. 1 priorities and maybe he has to give his up," Bakk said.

House Republicans initially budgeted to spend far less on education than Senate Democrats or the governor planned. Rep. Jenifer Loon, who chairs the Education Finance Committee, said she's content to pour the bulk of that unexpected windfall into the state's per-pupil formula. That would mean at least a 1.5 percent funding bump in each of the next two years.

Even some of the most ardent proponents of a "give it all back" tax cut mantra appeared ready to sign onto a budget deal that includes no immediate tax relief. Rep. Steve Drazkowski labeled the agreement "half elephant, half donkey," noting it split the difference between Democrats' and Republicans' financial plans.

"That's the epitome of compromise in this situation," the Mazeppa Republican said.

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