The state Legislature’s ongoing feud over a large infrastructure bill has left parts of Greater Minnesota in limbo with less than a week left in the session.
Take the small Iron Range city of Bovey, where $8.8 million meant to reduce the risk of damaging flooding from a massive mine pit lake was removed from a capital investment bill on Friday, as Democratic lawmakers who hold House and Senate majorities cut projects in Republican districts out of a construction package when negotiations collapsed.
By Monday, the money had reappeared in the DFL plan, thanks to talks with GOP legislators.
“Personally it ticks me off that they can’t do what’s right,” said Robert Stein, Bovey’s mayor, of what has become a months-long, rollercoaster saga. “And as the mayor of the city, it’s just telling the citizens that we’re not important enough … I don’t like being in the middle of it.”
Such is life at the Minnesota Capitol, where the unresolved “bonding” debate is a complicated, shape-shifting, and sometimes emotional affair.
The upshot, at least for now, is that DFLers have advanced a bill heavily tilted toward their districts in the Twin Cities metro, even with the project near Bovey. That has frustrated minority Republicans and local officials throughout the state.
The complicated bonding saga, explained
Bonding bills are different from other legislation. They require a 60% vote in the House and Senate to pass because they involve the state borrowing money through general obligation bonds, spreading out the cost of construction projects over the long term.
That requirement for passage gives the minority party one point of leverage to negotiate, either over construction projects or other legislative priorities.
Minnesota has gone almost three legislative sessions without a bonding bill — a historically long drought — because of those tricky politics. As a result, there is pent up demand and inflated costs for upgrades to things like water treatment plants, college buildings, parks, trails, roads and bridges.
In March, it appeared there was a breakthrough. Democrats proposed a $1.5 billion bonding bill and another $400 million in cash for capital investment. Lawmakers tried to evenly fund projects in legislative districts held by Republican and DFLers, and the bonding plan passed with support from nearly a third of House Republicans.
Some of those GOP legislators justified their votes by saying the era of hostage-taking over the bonding bill had proven unsuccessful, and some rural members of the House wanted help for critical infrastructure where it’s harder for small cities and counties to shoulder the high costs of major projects.
But Senate Republicans rejected that $1.9 billion package a week later, saying they wanted more tax cuts like the elimination of a state tax on Social Security benefits.
Since March, the two parties have haggled over a potential deal that could include more money for nursing homes, tax cuts or other Republican priorities. But with no deal in hand, Democrats said they were moving on.
Plan B for the DFL is to evade the GOP altogether by spending pure cash on the construction projects. Cash, rather than borrowing, needs just a simple majority to pass. And it’s a possibility this year only because of Minnesota’s jumbo $17.5 billion surplus.
But it’s still not the preferred route for Democrats, who want traditional bonding. Borrowing money frees up cash from the surplus the DFL can use on their other numerous priorities.
As a hardball negotiating tactic, Democrats have threatened all year to leave out projects in Republican districts — which are mainly in Greater Minnesota — from that cash bill if GOP lawmakers didn’t vote for bonding. House Speaker Melissa Hortman on Thursday announced just that, saying the Legislature would pass a smaller $1.3 billion construction bill this year using cash, and next year pursue a $1 billion cash proposal.
What’s in the new construction bill
That $1.3 billion plan unveiled late last week looked much different than what cleared the House with bipartisan support.
It contained many of the same projects, though many are in line for less money. For instance, the new cash bill had $3.5 million for wastewater treatment improvements in Austin, when the old package had $14.5 million.
Some projects, including several in Republican districts, were cut out altogether. That includes $6.1 million meant to help build new city water mains in Andover, where testing found contamination in private wells. Also cut was $8.8 million for infrastructure at the Canisteo Mine Pit next to Bovey, where money would be used “to mitigate the imminent threat to public safety, property, and regional water quality from the rising water.”
Money for water infrastructure grant programs that city officials in Greater Minnesota say is desperately needed was slashed from $208.2 million to $86 million. Funding for housing, child care and business development in Greater Minnesota dropped significantly, in some cases to zero. And 92% of the money for parks and trails in the bill was earmarked for the metro area.
Meanwhile, the DFL plan also had some new projects, mostly for nonprofits aimed primarily at helping people of color. For instance, the African Career and Education Resource Center would now get $3 million under the DFL plan to buy and renovate a building in Brooklyn Center used for business development.
Those changes were celebrated by some lawmakers, like Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis. “It is very equitable, it has far more BIPOC projects in here,” Mohamed said in a joint hearing Friday of House and Senate lawmakers.
But the new bill was not received well by Republican legislators. Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, referred to it as a “punch in the gut,” and “retaliatory.”
Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, noted only four of the 54 nonprofits funded in the legislation were in Greater Minnesota. And Franson said the 21 House Republicans who did vote for the traditional bonding bill earlier in the year were being punished “even though we put our necks on the line to get a bill passed off of the House floor.”
“There should be zero people drinking bottled water,” Franson said, referring to Andover. “There should be zero people worried about a pit flooding out their town.”
Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said he expects some lean toward districts held by lawmakers in the majority. This, however, “is just absolutely crazy, or maybe bonkers as the people like to say,” he said on Friday. “It’s absolutely unacceptable from a Greater Minnesota perspective.”
Peterson called for Gov. Tim Walz to step in to correct the geographic imbalance in the legislation. In a written statement, Walz spokeswoman Claire Lancaster said “it’s disappointing that Senate Republicans chose to reject a broad, bipartisan infrastructure bill.”
A partial correction for Greater Minnesota?
Democrats mostly stuck to their guns in the face of criticism.
Sen. Sandra Pappas, a St. Paul DFLer who chairs the Senate’s Capital Investment Committee, said Friday the cash bill was “bare bones” because the Senate GOP had voted down a balanced proposal. Earlier last week, Pappas said “it’s only fair that we focus on funding the projects for members that are willing to be partners and that are voting for the bill.”
However, by Monday, the DFL’s cash bill had been changed slightly, thanks to a small agreement with House Republicans. It now includes a few more projects in Greater Minnesota and in Republican-held legislative districts, including money for the Canisteo pit, Andover drinking water and more cash for the water treatment projects in Austin and Owatonna.
Pappas said the top Republican on the House’s capital investment committee appealed to Hortman for more money, so the Speaker kicked in an extra $60 million to fund projects for those who voted for the March bonding bill. “It’s better for Greater Minnesota, but it’s not necessarily hitting the mark on some of the things we’d like to see some more money on,” Peterson said, including the water treatment grants.
A last-minute bonding deal at the Minnesota Legislature is not unheard of. But in the meantime, the fate of infrastructure projects, mainly in Greater Minnesota, hangs in the balance of negotiations.
In Bovey, mayor Stein said he’s ready to fix the mine pit problems and move on rather than keep dealing with the political back and forth. People are already leaving the city because of the potential flooding risk, he said.
“What’s one life worth?” he asked. “I think it’s worth fixing the pit.”