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Senate cuts education 3.2 percent

ST. PAUL - The governor would increase public school education funding 2.2 percent.

Minnesota House leaders propose keeping education spending the next two years about the same as in the budget that ends on June 30.

And on Wednesday Senate Democrats proposed cutting education funding 3.2 percent, setting up parameters for school funding debate that will share the spotlight with taxes and other issues as Minnesota legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty get down to serious budget-writing work in the coming weeks.

Last month, Senate leaders said they would cut education funding 7 percent, but now have added federal economic stimulus money to soften the blow. Federal funds mean about half of the proposed $1 billion cut is filled in.

It still is a big cut, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said.

"We are taking a pretty good reduction in actual general fund dollars," Stumpf, chairman of the Senate Education Finance Committee, said about a $500 million cut from current spending.

The cuts would be evenly distributed, cutting $273 a year for every pupil.

The chairman said Senate Democrats, who hold a majority of the chamber's members, decided all spending areas need to be part of the state's budget-balancing efforts.

The education section is a key part of the state budget since it is nearly $14 billion of what is expected to be a $32 billion two-year budget.

The overall budget would face a deficit of $6.4 billion if not for federal economic stimulus money, combined with program cuts and new revenue, such as tax increases.

Pawlenty says education is important enough that it deserves more money, even with the current recession hurting state tax collections.

Talks among the House, Senate and governor will set the eventual education spending.

The House and Pawlenty propose saving money in the next budget by shifting some state payments to schools into the 2012-13 budget. The House plan, for instance, kicks $1.8 billion of payments into the next budget. The Senate plan does not do that.

Committee member Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, said the Senate bill is not perfect, but is as good a plan as possible during the recession.

Overall, the bill provides school districts relief for several mandates, Skogen said, which gives them more flexibility.

Stumpf said the Senate's proposed 3.2 percent cut would be softened even more after the federal government sends local school districts added aid for a variety of programs, including special education.

Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, however, warned that federal money presents a future danger. Since it is expected to be sent to schools only once, Olson said there is a danger of budget problems beginning in 2012 if the funds are spent for ongoing programs.

On the other hand, Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said the federal money is a lifesaver.

"This really does exactly what it was supposed to do, that is to give us some time during this (rough) economic time to put things together," Bonoff said.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.