Game-changer – Update for April 4, 2014

/ 4 April 2014 / eunice

This Week at the Capitol**

For education, the week was reduced to one REALLY BIG DAY: Thursday

  • HF826: After five hours of contentious debate, the Safe and Supportive Schools Act passed off the Senate floor on a vote of 36-31. The House passed their version a year ago. After all the changes and amendments, it will be interesting to see if the House accepts the Senate language, avoids a conference committee and presents the bill to the Governor in its current state.
  • SF2785: From early morning until late evening, with a break for floor session, Senate Finance continued work on their Senate Omnibus Supplemental Budget Bill. Expect that on the floor shortly.
  • HF3172: The House Omnibus Supplemental Budget Bill was debated on the floor for hours with 104 amendments offered; seven referred to education. The bill passed off the floor shortly before midnight on a vote of 70-59.

There are many that don’t know Minnesota has a part-time legislature, meant to meet once in a biennium. It is now considered normal to convene each of the two years, concentrating the first year on balancing the state budget and the second year on bonding. While it is always hoped that the session will end sooner than expected, it almost never happens. This year looked to be the exception and legislators have been working overtime to complete bills, meeting ambitious deadlines.

However, as Senate Finance was pulling together the Senate Supplemental Budget bill, Chair Sen. Cohen announced a possible game-changer that might slow the session down. On Monday night, Senate Majority Leader Bakk and Speaker of the House Thissen reached an agreement to reserve $750 million of the forecast surplus for next session. This agreement caused a reshuffling of funding appropriations in the Senate Supplemental Budget bill.

To really understand this, we need to talk about “tails.” When Governor Carlson was in office, he insisted that ongoing appropriations from one biennium be reflected in budget projections for the next biennium. This required legislators to consider how an appropriation would impact the ongoing state budget. These “out year” expenditures are referred to as “tails.”

To “tame the tails” the education funding provisions of the Senate Supplemental Budget were changed. This was handled primarily by converting ongoing appropriations to one-time money. One ongoing appropriation that was removed was the $5.4 million to expand English Language Learning services from five years to seven.

The uncertain fate of the education policy bills

In both bodies the education omnibus policy bills are ready to be brought to the floor for their third reading, and a final vote. The House is scheduled to bring their bill to the chamber Friday, but the Senate’s direction is less clear. Once passed in both bodies, the differences will need to be reconciled in a conference committee. The choice could be made to end session before that happens. At this point, we simply don’t know.

The difficulty in watching lengthy floor debates

What is the hardest thing about watching hours and hours of floor debate? Some believe it is the uncertainty of amendments coming out of the blue and making their way into a bill – certainly difficult. Some believe it is the tediousness of amending amendments to the amendment – again, in the running on the pain level. Some believe it is the endless parliamentary procedure “gotchas” to slow or stop action with which you disagree – certainly wearying, but in truth pretty fascinating. No, for me the difficulty in watching hours of debate is the snarkiness that makes its way into the discussion. As the hours wane, it is difficult not to be affected by the hyperbole, the cheap shots and the unbelievable stretching of the truth. At times it feels like several members are playing to their own audience – and I suppose they are.

Page 2 – the making of a law

I don’t remember which newscaster used the tag line “Page 2,” but it is so applicable to this circumstance. While controversy makes news, the ensuing compromise is not always newsworthy. This Page 2 is about HF2775/SF2459, a bill that has been on our Bills to Watch list since it first appeared.

Some of you may have read the column by MinnPost’s Beth Hawkins, describing a contentious Senate Education committee last week. Sen. Clausen was presenting a bill on teacher evaluation that held a provision to which Sen. Petersen objected. “Andover Republican Branden Petersen walked out of a state Senate Education Committee hearing and into the office of Gov. Mark Dayton, where he requested a meeting. The topic: That afternoon’s vote to delay the rollout of statewide teacher evaluations until the 2015-2016 school year.” All true. Now, Page 2.

Over a two-year period, a state-level task force developed a teacher evaluation “default system.” Many districts are now piloting that system to determine its efficacy. It was the author’s intent in SF2459 to better align the work of the task force, the old Qcomp statutes and the newer evaluation statutes. In so doing, he added dollars that non-Qcomp districts could use to “level the playing field,” provided more time for districts to implement the system and safeguarded the privacy of a coach’s work product. Peer evaluators will be required to submit a formal report as part of a teacher’s evaluation, however: “The observation and interview notes of peer coaches may only be disclosed to other school officials with the consent of the teacher being coached.”

Senator Petersen’s concerns about the delay were echoed by other groups, and over the weekend the author worked with multiple stakeholders to remove delay in implementation and trim the budget. However, Sen. Clausen fervently defended the right to private consultation between the peer coach and the teacher.

This is the level of compromise it takes to make better law. So on Page 2, there is peace in the land. The bill passed out of committee and, since this has a $10 million appropriation, it has been referred to Senate Finance.

What to expect in the coming weeks

Conferees may well be appointed this weekend or early next week. Then it is up to the conference committee chairs to convene and begin work. A conference committee can finish their work in an hour or a month – there is no “time certain” for this work. It was suggested by the Senate Finance chair that the changes made to conform with the agreed upon $750 million reserved for next biennium, may make for a longer session. Keep your eye on the Capitol Calendar because things change quickly.

Worth a second look

Most days on our website, Parents United provides links to our Daily News Picks! These are education articles that catch our eye. A few of those articles are worth a second look either because they are so compelling or because they provide context for an issue currently being debated at the Capitol:

What is Parents United’s agenda? It’s simple: we don’t speak for parents, but work to provide credible, timely information about education policy and the law-making process so parents can speak for themselves. Truth be told, Parents United is a translator of complex terms and policy implications, as well as a navigator for a legislative process often oblique to the public.

**Mary Cecconi, Executive Director

Parents United for Public Schools**

1667 Snelling Ave. N., St. Paul, MN 55108