Dueling spreadsheets—fuzzy math carries into education

Evaluation Report: Fiscal Notes – A review of the state’s process for estimating the impact of proposed legislation found that the process would benefit from clearer statutory requirements, more detailed explanations in fiscal notes of their assumptions, and better communication between legislators and agencies, Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor, February 9, 2012 (Full report; Summary).

In 2011, some legislative committees used alternatives to fiscal notes to obtain estimates of proposed legislation’s impacts. These estimates were not subject to review by the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget (MMB) or readily available to the public.
Recommendation: The Legislature should require, with certain exceptions, that bills have fiscal notes before finance committees vote on their passage.

 Learn more about the work of the Office of the Legislative Auditor.


In committee when Chair Gen Olson offered SF1030, she presented spreadsheets showing how the funding would be distributed. In compiling these numbers, she deviated from the usual way fiscal notes are prepared and compared her bill to current year funding. During floor debate, Senator Stumpf presented spreadsheets using the method traditionally used in the Senate.

  • SF1030 Compared to February Forecast (PDF) – Using this file you can compare Senator Olson’s spreadsheets (pages 1-14) to Senator Stumpf’s (pages 15-28), March 29, 2011 (updated).

Learn more about the difference between flat funding and base funding calculations.

Related Articles

Auditor: More transparency needed on state cost estimates – Minnesota’s system for estimating the financial impact of proposed state legislation needs to be more transparent and the cost of legislative proposals on local governments needs to be more clear, according to a report out today by the state legislative auditor, Star Tribune, February 9, 2012.

Lawmakers in 2011 increasingly turned to an “informal” cost estimate process that bypasses fiscal notes, the report found. This informal process does not create documents that the public can review. It also circumvents the formal review conducted by the state’s Management and Budget Office.

K-12 bill passes; Dems question funding increase – State lawmakers worked and debated well into the night Tuesday and into Wednesday morning before passage of a GOP education funding bill that Republicans say would increase per-pupil payments to public schools and would make controversial changes to how schools operate, including ending the teacher tenure system and banning teacher strikes. …But Democrats claim the funding increase is misleading, Marshall Independent, Mar 31, 2011.

“There is no funding increase. In fact, with the freeze in some of the categories like special education, as we move into the future there will actually be cuts. By the time you get into the fourth year, if this bill indeed becomes law, it will be pretty obvious.”
—State Representative Lyle Koenen

State Budget 101 – If you listen to lawmakers from different parties discuss the state budget, it’s easy to be confused. Not only are they debating hugely complex programs in terms that are unfamiliar to most people, but they never seem to agree on the numbers… Starting with the Legislature, the House and Senate have nonpartisan fiscal analysis staff who provide regularly updated spreadsheets detailing budget bills as they move through the legislative process. …For even more detailed information on the budget, including economic forecasts and financial reports, MMB’s website provides access to a wide variety of budget related documents, Session Weekly, April 1, 2011.

Let agency analysts keep budget score – Republicans should take Dayton’s parameters to heart…. On Monday, Dayton penned a letter about those negotiations that legislators ought to take to heart. It set out parameters that are in Minnesota’s best interest and are in keeping with practices that have served lawmakers of both parties well for decades. We’d underscore two of his messages: The nonpartisan fiscal analysts in the executive branch — and no one else — must be the final arbiters of the cost of budget bill provisions. Every team sport needs officials who call the score and players who accept and abide by officials’ decisions. The Legislature’s budget-setting game is no different, Star Tribune Editorial, April 7, 2011.

And it continues…

PoliGraph: Lawmaker’s education claim only partially correct – As Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP legislative leaders look for an overall budget deal, individual parts of the budget are causing partisan friction. One area is education funding. DFL lawmakers say the Republican majority is cutting K-12 funding by $44 million. Republican leaders say they’re increasing funding substantially. The Verdict: On one hand, Garofalo’s claim is correct. His panel’s bill would increase education spending compared to the last two years and increase spending on some things, including per pupil spending. But he neglects a fact that DFLers highlight: funding falls short of what the state would be spending if it followed current law, and that means some school districts will see cuts. For leaving out those facts, Garofalo’s claim is misleading, Minnesota Public Radio, June 3, 2011.

Accounting trick explains Minnesota schools’ so-called ‘windfall’ – Wielded with enough might, it turns out a spreadsheet makes a pretty good blunt instrument. Midway between July’s blitzkrieg special session and November’s referenda-heavy election, Minnesota House Republican leaders are revving up the message machine. The state’s public schools, they insist, are getting hefty budget increases and might not truly need the levies. They’re circulating materials that suggest that far from being in a financial crisis, schools will get an average of almost $500 per pupil in new funding in fiscal year 2012. The figures have been making the rounds in political circles for some time, and appear to be the underpinnings of a campaign to defeat the 120-plus operating levy requests appearing on ballots in November. They’re accurate — but only in the same way it’s true that withholding 40 percent of school funding adds up to a balanced budget, MinnPost, September 8, 2011

More media coverage on inflated estimates of school revenues.