ST. PAUL — After months of logjam at the Capitol culminating in a nearly 10-hour-long debate, the Minnesota lawmakers jumped a critical hurdle in passing a $1.9 billion bonding bill months after they were expected to send one to the governor's desk.
The Minnesota House of Representatives on Wednesday, Oct. 14, by a 100-34 vote approved the proposal that allows the state to borrow for wastewater infrastructure, road and bridge repairs and health and agriculture lab updates around the state. The bill also includes a tax cut for farmers and small business owners and additional spending to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 for personal care attendants and direct care and treatment providers and to keep open small prisons in Togo and Willow River.
The breakthrough comes after the divided Legislature for months has failed to come to an agreement on a proposal that could appease minority caucuses in each chamber. Bonding proposals require a 60% threshold of support, which gives minority members special leverage in negotiations. Several previous attempts to pass a bill came up short as House Republicans put up conditions to supporting the bill like asking the governor to end the state's peacetime emergency.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said in his final pitch to representatives late Wednesday that "nay-sayers" thought it would be impossible for the country's sole divided Legislature to agree upon such a large bill package in a heated election year, let alone three weeks before the general election. The "natural course of events" and "easy politics," he said, would have been for Democrats and Republicans "to yell and to scream" and achieve nothing. Wednesday's negotiated bill was the "harder" but better route, he said.
"Nobody could ever agree with anybody else’s bonding bill, I don't think. It’s almost impossible by definition," he said. "But the things that we are accomplishing for people around the state make a difference. They really matter."
Not everyone agreed with Winkler's assessment, though. Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu, R-North Branch, voted against the bill, calling it "irresponsible," and saying it would simply load too much debt onto the state. While she said many of the projects included are critical, — like ones to clean drinking water and reinforce structurally unsound dams — she called others "luxuries" or even "garbage" that individual communities should pay for themselves, not all of Minnesota taxpayers.
"Things like getting arsenic out of water, that’s critical. Making sure that our infrastructure is sound and safe is critical. But boy, I wish we were paying for this bill," Neu said. "It is not responsible for us to do this to the state of Minnesota."
Pressure from local governments, trades groups and business leaders helped convince lawmakers to back the plan, as did the promise of bringing home projects to their districts with a 20-day countdown to the general election.
The bill moves now to the Senate for its approval, where prior plans had passed with bipartisan support and Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, has signaled a willingness to pass a bonding bill. But this week, Senate GOP leaders have raised red flags about last-minute additions that could derail bipartisan, bicameral deals.
As the House approached its ninth hour of debate Wednesday night, Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, tweeted a warning for the House not to resign sine die and conclude its special session that night — perhaps an indication that Senate Republicans would not greenlight the omnibus as passed by the House, after all, and more negotiations could be on the horizon.
"There were changes made without agreed upon language," she wrote. "The Senate deserves a chance to voice our concerns. This is too important for a take-it-or-leave-it negotiating tactic."
The $1.87 billion compromise bonding bill passed by the House includes authorization to issue bonds to fund projects around the state. Of that amount, $1.13 billion in borrowing would be put toward general obligation bonds funded by state taxes. Another $300 million in trunk highway bonds and other spending make up the rest. Lawmakers received more than $5 billion in requests from local governments, colleges and state departments.
Proponents say the plan could create as many as 20,000 new jobs and spur economic development.
“There are issues all across the state that need to be met every single day and this bill addresses those things,” Rep. Mary Murphy, D-Hermantown, said. "We couldn’t do everything for everyone but we sure tried hard."
Included in the plan is the construction of a joint Minnesota Department of Health and Department of Agriculture lab, new buildings on the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State campuses as well as renovations. And it would fund $100 million in housing infrastructure bonds and grants for Greater Minnesota communities to get child care facilities up and running.
Democrats needed to pick up six Republicans to pass the bill through the House and they said they included in the bonding measure projects in GOP lawmakers districts to help convince them to support the plan. House Democrats only needed to woo six Republicans to pass the bill, but 25 broke from their caucus to come along for the ride. Other Republicans vocally opposed the measure on the House floor, raising concerns about the state's ability to pay off the debt.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, on Wednesday tried to amend the bill to set up a mechanism to put more unused funding in the bill toward later spending. He said in the face of a $4.7 billion budget shortfall, lawmakers should take steps to shore up the state's finances heading into next year. That amendment failed.
"It really is important that we worry about the current deficit in the current biennium and in the tails,” Daudt said.
Republicans also raised amendments that would streamline the process for the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline to move forward, noting the potential economic value to northern Minnesota and job openings that could come open. That amendment was ruled irrelevant to the bill.
While lawmakers could be called back again in November and December if Gov. Tim Walz wants to extend the state's peacetime emergency for COVID-19, Walz and legislative leaders have said failure to pass the bill this week would likely tank prospects for a bonding bill this year.
Gov. Tim Walz began highlighting the need for a bonding omnibus at the start of the year before the Legislature gaveled in for its regular session in February and on Wednesday told reporters that “people have been waiting too long” for the package. He has said he would sign the proposal into law.