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Spending Minnesota’s share of the infrastructure bill is likely to be a lot less partisan than passing it

There’s something about having billions to spend that brings people together. Meanwhile, U.S. Reps. Dean Phillips and Angie Craig have criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar and the four Republican members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation for voting against the bill. 

Minnesota usually spends about $1 billion a year on road and bridge work.
Minnesota usually spends about $2 billion a year on road and bridge work.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

In Washington, D.C., passing a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package was a highly partisan event.

But spending Minnesota’s share of that money on roads, bridges, broadband and other physical improvements across the state likely won’t be. It seems there’s something about having $6-7 billion to spend that brings people together.

State Sen. Scott Newman
State Sen. Scott Newman
“Absolutely it’s good news for the state,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chair Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. “It’s literally, in my estimation, a once in a lifetime opportunity to address some of the aging infrastructure in the state of Minnesota.”

“I am overjoyed,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, the Minneapolis DFLer who is his caucus’ ranking member on the Transportation Committee. 

As with other recent large federal spending bills, the state has some idea what amounts will flow from the various categories but will have to wait weeks, perhaps months, for specific guidance on how it can be spent. The state usually spends about $2 billion a year on road and bridge work from fuel taxes and bonding and will likely receive an additional $4.8 billion over five years for that purpose from the federal law.

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In addition to roads and bridges, early estimates are that Minnesota will also get $818 million for public transportation; $680 million for waterworks; $297 million for airport improvements; $100 million to expand broadband access; $68 million to expand electric vehicle charging networks; $20 million for wildfire protection; and $17 million to increase cybersecurity.

State Sen. Scott Dibble
State Sen. Scott Dibble
Minnesota will also benefit from money that isn’t distributed directly to states, such as money to repair and expand Amtrak — the biggest expansion in the 50-year history of the passenger rail service — that could be spent on Minnesota routes.

The 2,700-page bill does provide some guidance on how Congress wants the money spent, and federal Department of Transportation rules will likely track compliance. For example, the money for public transportation will go toward making transit accessible for people with disabilities. There will also be money directed to school districts and transit agencies to replace diesel buses with electric vehicles.

Newman said the new money will likely follow current federal funding formulas that rely on population and other metrics. The same is true of transit and airport funding and explains how the state came up with the estimates of what it will receive.

The dollar amounts can be so large they are hard to fathom: trillions and billions and millions. In most cases they are the largest investments in decades, if not ever. And they are just the latest influx of cash to the state since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But unlike the three previous infusions of money — starting with the CARES Act in the spring of 2020 and carrying through the American Rescue Plan this past spring — the infrastructure money will follow well-established methods for moving federal dollars to states.

How will it be allocated? 

While final guidance could alter expectations, the Walz Administration and legislative transportation leaders expect the decisions will be made through the regular legislative budget process. Only if there is an impasse will the money move into what is called the Legislative Advisory Committee, where governors can direct the money after informing the committee and giving its members a chance to object.

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But both Newman and Dibble said they doubt that will happen.

Newman said he, Dibble and House Transportation Committee Chair Frank Hornstein have worked at building rapport and focusing on what they can agree on.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein
State Rep. Frank Hornstein
“Obviously we are very, very different politically,” Newman said of Dibble and Hornstein. “But in the transportation area, they are more interested in doing what is good for the state of Minnesota than in playing politics. I am very hopeful we can keep politics out of this.”

Dibble echoed that sentiment when talking about Newman: “We have an excellent working relationship.” 

He said he doubted there would be much appetite for politicizing the issue next session. “I can’t imagine doing anything but facilitating legislation would help us electorally,” Dibble said. “It’s one of those situations where no one benefits from blocking passage. We would suffer mightily if we did that because we would look like absolute clowns if we did.”

Dibble took issue with a statement committee vice chair John Jasinski, R-Faribault, made to MPR that legislators should be allowed to earmark projects from their districts. Dibble said if that equates to powerful senators directing money to their districts as the expense of a statewide focus, “that can’t happen.”

State Sen. John Jasinski
State Sen. John Jasinski
The state Department of Transportation creates construction project lists based on a variety of factors, such as current conditions, accident data and capacity expansion needs. Projects are placed on four-year plans, 10-year plans and 20-year plans.

Public comment and legislative advice is taken, and there is often political pressure to move local projects higher on construction lists. But with the Senate controlled by Republicans and the House controlled by the DFL, any budgets would have to be bipartisan — and any impasse would tip control to the DFL governor. Hornstein is attending the COP26 climate conference in Scotland and said he would review the federal law when he returns and that he hopes to schedule a committee meeting on the infrastructure plan.

MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson-Kelliher said the department will make recommendations to the Legislature and work with the committees on appropriating the new money.

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“We have to have legislative approval,” she said, noting that states must match federal dollars at 20 percent, which suggests lawmakers will need to pitch in around $1 billion over five years.

Criticism from unions

The state’s congressional delegation was far less collegial than Newman and Dibble. The bill passed the U.S. Senate in August with 19 GOP votes, including that of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Both Minnesota DFL Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar voted yes.

But when the bill finally hit the House floor a week ago, only 13 Republicans voted yes. None were from Minnesota.

MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Rep. Pete Stauber
Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican who represents Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, claimed that because Democratic leadership had said it would take up a large social spending package after the infrastructure legislation, voting no was linked to that bill.

“I will not be complicit in paving a destructive and irreversible path toward socialism,” he said. He also questioned whether the bill would actually pay for infrastructure and said it would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt.

But the bill also was opposed by a handful of progressives, including U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis. She said she had agreed to vote for the bill only if it came to the floor after the social spending package. She voted against the bill along with all six members of what is known as The Squad, but they were only members of the nearly 100-member House Progressive Caucus to do so.

The negative votes drew criticism from trade union members, who often split their political support and campaign contributions between Republicans and Democrats.

“Disappointed to not see my friend @RepPeteStauber on this list….I’m tough on both sides when they let down workers, this was a let down there is no question about it,” tweeted Jason George, the business Manager International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 49. 

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George later added another tweet: “I want my Republican friends to think about this point — you are standing with the Squad in opposing the infrastructure bill — you’re with them — that has to make you think about what you’re doing — the Squad is not who you want to be aligned with friends.”

During a press conference Tuesday to tout the law’s impact on Minnesota, Ryan Pecinovsky, the business manager for the regional council of carpenters, said the union would remember the vote.

“We have a term that we use that’s called ‘carpenter economics,’ what puts food on our table,” Pecinovsky said. “We vote for congressmen and women and legislators who keep our economics in mind, and we’ll continue to support those who support us.”

During the same press conference, U.S. Reps. Dean Phillips and Angie Craig were critical of both the GOP members of the delegation and of Omar.

Rep. Angie Craig speaking on Tuesday about the infrastructure bill as Rep. Dean Phillips, business representative for the regional council of carpenters Ryan Pecinovsky, and Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher look on.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Rep. Angie Craig speaking on Tuesday about the infrastructure bill as Rep. Dean Phillips, business representative for the regional council of carpenters Ryan Pecinovsky, and Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher look on.
“I’m disappointed with all five members of the Minnesota delegation who voted against this bill,” Craig said (U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum also voted yes). “Call me cynical, but by the end all eight members of Congress are going to be taking credit for this.”

“They’ll be at the ribbon cuttings,” said Phillips.

Newman, the chair of the state Senate’s Transportation Committee, said construction trade unions should be upset with members of Congress who voted no on the bill. But he also said he didn’t want to comment on complaints that five of the state’s eight members of Congress voted no on the bill: Omar and all four of his fellow Republicans in the U.S. House. 

“What I am looking at is what can we do for the people in the state of Minnesota to make their lives better and I think this bill will help us,” Newman said. “I’m looking to the future. I’m not looking to the past.

“All I know is we are being given an opportunity — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — to have a bill of this significance,” he said.