‘Everyone wants one’: Public works bill success predicted after another legislative failure

ST. PAUL -- Two failures may equal success. The Minnesota House and Senate failed to pass their public works funding bills, but in the three days lawmakers have left this year, major legislative players expect those defeated bills to be merged in...

ST. PAUL - Two failures may equal success.

The Minnesota House and Senate failed to pass their public works funding bills, but in the three days lawmakers have left this year, major legislative players expect those defeated bills to be merged into one that funds rail safety, college building repairs, flood prevention and other projects around Minnesota. Optimism abounded Thursday in St. Paul, even as there were few high-level talks to solve remaining legislative issues such as budget changes, transportation funding and tax cuts.
The spotlight Thursday fell on a relatively brief House debate about legislation to borrow $800 million for public works projects. It failed 69-64, well short of the 81 the state Constitution requires for borrowing money. A $1.5 billion Senate public works bill failed by a single vote earlier in the month.
But despite their failures, the bills are headed to negotiations to work out a measure acceptable to Democrats and Republicans in both bodies. Normally, conference committee members negotiate differences between the House and Senate in bills that pass; it is rare for two failed bills to be the basis of a compromise.
Rep. Alice Hausman, D-St. Paul, ripped the Republican-written public works bill, to be financed by the state selling bonds. She said it shorted Democratic districts and missed too many state priorities.
But minutes later, when asked if she was optimistic a bonding bill eventually will pass, she said: “I think so. Everyone wants one.”

Republican House members wanted to limit borrowing to $800 million, said Rep. Paul Torkelson, chairman of the House committee that funds public works projects, so that is the bill he presented Thursday. The Hanska Republican said he was waiting to hear from legislative leaders what the final amount of spending will be.
Once the final bonding target is decided, Torkelson and Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, will lead negotiations for the final bill.
“This is kind of a plain Jane bill,” Torkelson said. “There is not a lot of fluff in it.”
Democrats complained their districts were left out of the bill, although House GOP staffers said $232 million was in Republican districts while $200 million would be for Democratic districts.
Also on the Democratic complaint list was that the bill should spend more.
“I have heard it should be bigger,” Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said. “But this bill is above average.”
Torkelson said many of the items on the list were taken from Dayton administration bonding priorities.
He especially talked about projects in Duluth, represented by Democrats who voted against the bill. Duluth-area projects included $27 million for a University of Minnesota Duluth chemical and advanced materials facility, $21 million to convert a downtown steam heat project to hot water and $12.7 million to clean up the St. Louis River.
On the other side of the state, the GOP bill left out Dayton’s top rail safety priority: constructing a new Moorhead railroad crossing so vehicles are not forced to wait for trains. Torkelson said there was just not enough money for the project that sought more than $40 million in state funds.
“That is a huge safety thing,” Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said about the railroad crossing, calling its absence from the bill a symbol of why the measure failed.
On other issues, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said legislative leaders near agreement about how much can be spent.
“We are close on taxes,” he emphasized about a bill that could result in tax cuts for many Minnesotans.
Once the overall figure is reached, negotiators will hammer out details. The same is true on a bill making changes in the state budget enacted last year.
Transportation, which leaders had said should be the first to be solved, appeared Thursday to be furthest from a conclusion.
Democrats insist transit funding, such as for a new light rail line in the southwest Twin Cities, must be part of any transportation funding plan. Republicans maintain a strong opposition.
“I feel we are close on the road and bridge (funding) side,” Daudt said, “but on transit or the train side, it remains controversial.”

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