Students, teachers, unions urge lawmakers to invest state budget surplus

U of M grad student Courtney Gildersleeve speaks at a town hall meeting on how to use the state's $1.2 billion budget surplus.

U of M grad student Courtney Gildersleeve speaks at a town hall meeting on how to use the state’s $1.2 billion budget surplus.


The projected $1.2 billion state budget surplus, announced by state officials today, creates an opportunity for lawmakers to strengthen communities and continue growing Minnesota’s middle class in the 2016 legislative session, union members and allies said.

And the first place lawmakers should look to invest is education.

That’s the message three Metro-area legislators heard from students, teachers, academics and religious leaders during a town hall meeting in Dinkytown today, as stakeholders from across the education spectrum offered a united front in support of investing surplus funds in education “from cradle to career.”

Sen. Greg Clausen talks with participants in a town hall forum on the state budget surplus in Dinkytown.

Sen. Greg Clausen talks with participants in a town hall forum on the state budget surplus in Dinkytown.

“The Legislature is listening,” Sen. Greg Clausen (DFL-Apple Valley) assured participants in the meeting at University Baptist Church. “We need to invest in education. There’s no question about it.”

Rep. Carlos Mariani, a DFLer from St. Paul, said the healthy surplus is a positive indicator for Minnesota’s economy. “It means our state is working,” he said. “It means our tax structure makes sense.

But lawmakers and labor leaders, including Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy, warned against the inevitable calls to squander the surplus on election-year tax cuts.

“Instead of giveaways to corporate CEOs and employers who choose to pay low wages, lawmakers should embrace policies and investments that support working people,” McCarthy said. “We can ensure all Minnesotans are paid fairly for the work they do and have time for family. We can invest in schools so that every child can attend pre-K. We can improve our state’s infrastructure, boost our job creation tools, and strengthen the public services that vulnerable Minnesotans depend on.”

Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5, added: “The Legislature shouldn’t raid workers’ wallets to give unneeded tax breaks to billionaires and big businesses.  Those tax giveaways create income inequality, budget deficits and government shutdowns.”

At the town hall meeting, educators urged investments in pre-kindergarten and per-pupil funding for public school districts, as well as targeted investments to address the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

“A lot of people are losing hope because they don’t have a decent education, because they don’t have a decent job,” said Chase Elliott, a parent and a member of the Minneapolis-based community group Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.

The need for investment extends into suburban communities, too. Farmington fourth-grade teacher Jennifer York, a member of Education Minnesota, said cutbacks in recent years have forced her school district and others to lay off support staff, like school counselors, nurses and family-support workers.

Farmington teacher Jennifer York urges lawmakers to invest "every dollar" of the surplus in education.

Farmington teacher Jennifer York urges lawmakers to invest “every dollar” of the surplus in education.

Pre-kindergarten teacher Amanda Reineck, meanwhile, said professionals in her field remain among the lowest-paid in the country. “Many excellent teachers have left the profession because the pay was not enough for them to support their families,” she said.

Local 284 of the Service Employees International Union organized the town hall meeting with its affiliate group MN Academics United, which represents faculty at the U of M’s Twin Cities campus who are working to form a union.

Academics and graduate students supportive of the organizing drive called for investments in higher education that would lower tuition, provide relief from student debt and guarantee living wages for faculty, teaching assistants and frontline workers at the U.

“The working conditions of instructors are the learning conditions of students,” physics grad student Jarrett Brown said.

Speakers acknowledged their priorities are likely to be pit against each other at the Capitol next year, but remained hopeful that listening to each other was a first step toward winning together in 2016.

“I hope we’ll be holding these town hall meetings in other parts of the state,” said Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis).


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