‘Sense of relief': Walz signs education budget into law

Gov. Tim Walz slapped hands with four-year-old students at an elementary school before signing his first state budget bill Thursday to cap a months-long debate about education funding in Minnesota.

Walz, a former teacher, said the education budget would prevent deep layoffs and program cuts at public schools. The deal looked uncertain just two weeks ago, when a government shutdown loomed amid a budget stalemate. 

“We’re here and there is maybe a sense of relief,” Walz said after signing the bill. “I am very proud of this and those who want to make this a who won and who lost. The only thing I care about is if Minnesota wins.”

The education budget increases funding for E-12 by $543 million. Walz had proposed a $711 million increase and House Democrats sought $900 million, but both had to settle for a much lower amounts in negotiations with Senate Republicans.

It includes $30 million in funding for school safety improvements, including mental health programs. It maintains 4,000 pre-kindergarten slots statewide, though Walz had sought more.

“For a budget that was a compromise budget amongst all of us, my hope is that this stabilizes us,” Walz said.

The governor signed the budget bill in the library at Bruce Vento Elementary School in St. Paul. Walz’s team didn’t know it, but it’s the same room where former Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a Republican tax bill in 2018, instructing students to chant “one, two, three, veto!” while he stamped his disapproval on the legislation.

Thursday, a different group of students saw a friendlier relationship between the first-term Walz and lawmakers.

“It’s really nice to be here for a bill signing and not a bill veto,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “I think there were some who said, ‘Oh, the administration is too closely involved in the drafting of the bills.’ Our objective was to get bills signed into law. It’s very rewarding to see that happen here today.”

Walz said he would sign the rest of the budget bills into law by the end of the week. He was not planning to make any vetoes.

The deals happened during round-the-clock, closed-door negotiations between Walz, Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka after lawmakers were unable to finish their work on time. Ultimately, they needed a 21-hour special session last week to pass the legislation.

In the next round of budget negotiations in 2021, Walz said he would seek more funding and policy changes to address issues like the racial achievement gap in Minnesota schools. The makeup of the state Legislature that year will be a decision left to voters in 2020.

This year, many of Walz’s priorities got pared back in negotiations with the Senate. State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester and chairwoman of the Senate Education committee, said she was “very happy” with the end result.

“I think the bills do serve our kids well,” Nelson said in an interview. “I don’t see anything in this education bill that I would find objectionable or not worthy of the investment.”