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The five weirdest things about the Legislature’s 2020 bonding bill saga

The Senate’s approval of the $1.9 billion legislation on Thursday marked the end of a strange, months-long process, one that involved five special sessions and a lot of discussions over things that had very little to do with public construction projects.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speaking to members of the press on Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speaking to members of the press on Thursday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

On Thursday, the Minnesota Senate passed a massive billion bonding bill that also makes small changes to state spending and taxes. That follows the Minnesota House passing the bill by a wide margin on Wednesday, and Gov. Tim Walz has said he will sign the package into law. 

The bill, with a final price tag of $1.9 billion, will pay for everything from college buildings, water plants and flood control projects to roads and bridges, bus rapid transit, affordable housing and a slew of local arts and economic development projects.

But it wasn’t easy getting there. The Senate’s approval marked the end of a strange, months-long process, one that involved five special sessions and a lot of discussions over things that had very little to do with public construction projects.

Here, then, are the five of the weirdest things about the Minnesota Legislature’s very weird 2020 bonding bill process:

 1. It took 10 hours to debate a bill that got 100 votes in the House

The House worked from noon to well past 10 p.m. on a bill that combined a $1.37 billion construction budget with a tax-cut measure and a small increase in state spending. Amendments and bitter debate went on and on. There were accusations of pork-barrel politics, profligate spending, irresponsible budgeting, finger-pointing and scolding — and that was just between Republicans.

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And yet, in the end, the House passed the bill 100-34.

The Senate was more efficient — it passed the bill in just three hours — but had a similar dynamic. Two quotes frame it as well as any.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Roger Chamberlain
“It’s akin to taking a chug from a gallon of milk and realizing it’s rancid and it naturally and impulsively expels from your mouth,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. “It’s an abomination.”

“I’m gonna celebrate with my communities because they are very, very happy that they have a breath of life here,” said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center.

Both voted yes. 

The final vote was 64-3. 

A bill this big — it’s 180 pages — has something for every member to like but also a lot to hate. That’s why it was all put together, to collect enough votes to pass. Several members referred to it as the best example of  sausage-making, referencing the quote from Otto von Bismarck that,  “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”

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Someone who likes the pay hike for state troopers and personal care assistants might be a nose-holding-yes for a bill that includes what many considered pork-barrel projects. Someone who opposes more road building could get past that because of a historic investment in bus rapid transit in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“You know how I can tell this is a really good bill,” said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisolm. “When you listen to people speak and they say ‘I like this and I don’t like that. But I like this and I don’t like that but I’m going to vote for the bill.’” 

2. The debate over a construction funding bill was sometimes about everything except construction projects

The legislation pays for college buildings, water plants, flood control projects, rail separation, roads and bridges, bus rapid transit, affordable housing and a slew of local arts and economic development projects. But until this week, those projects weren’t a big part of the conversation about the bill.

First, it was about the price, with Gov. Tim Walz proposing $2 billion in general obligation debt, which is paid off with general state taxes. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said no more than $1 billion. 

House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt
House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt
Then House GOP leader Kurt Daudt of Crown linked the needed votes — bonding bills need a 60 percent supermajority to pass — to the end of Walz’s emergency powers. Then Metro-area DFLers linked their votes to taking action on criminal justice reform. Finally, the leaders of both the House and the Senate packaged it with tax cuts and emergent spending that have traditionally been done separately, primarily because they take only a simple majority to pass, not 60 percent.

Even during Wednesday’s House debate, amendments tried to link the bill to the Line 3 pipeline project, the riots in Minneapolis and St. Paul, defunding the police and even the emergency morgue that Walz used federal CARES Act money to purchase (which has not been needed). They failed.

It’s the constitutional demand that 60 percent support is needed to encumber the state with long-term debt that makes such maneuvers possible, and irresistible. Only once or twice during each two-year Legislature does the minority party in each chamber get to be players. So they take full advantage.

What happened this week was that enough lawmakers recognized that they’d gotten all they were gonna get — and that taking nothing into the election would be worse than taking what was there. 

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3. Melissa Hortman makes Job — as in the guy from the Bible — seem impetuous

The Brooklyn Park speaker of the House waited. May. June. July, August, September. October. Lawmakers were in session and could legally adopt a bonding bill and each time, except perhaps in August, she thought there was a chance.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
When Minority Leader Kurt Daudt tied his votes on the bill to emergency powers, she let that play out. When her own members thought the bill was way too small — that the cities were being cheated — she counseled that they should get what they could. When Walz was fighting with Gazelka and when Daudt was fighting with Walz, she refrained from jumping in. And on Wednesday night, when half the GOP members were for the bill and half the GOP members were against the bill and they all wanted to talk for 10 hours, she let them talk for 10 hours.

That morning, passage was still in doubt though she said she was hopeful there was enough in the bill to attract the six GOP votes she needed. In the late evening, the bill received 25 GOP votes, 100 total, and was easily adopted.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka had to practice his own variety of patience. He and Hortman had a deal pretty much crafted in July. But his chamber and his caucus had to wait around while the House DFL and House GOP decided when the tussle was over. When that happened, he returned to the Senate floor and moved the bill to Walz.

4. It took five tries to do one job. 

It’s by tradition rather than law or constitution that legislative sessions in even-numbered years are dubbed bonding sessions. The House and Senate are occupied with the two-year budget when they first gather after an election, so they dedicate the following year’s shorter session to public construction projects.

That has morphed over the last few decades to doing a bonding bill each year, though the odd-year bonding bills have been much smaller than the even-year bill.

So when the House and Senate convened in February, they would say the bonding bill was the only must-do of 2020. While it is fair to blame COVID-19 for disrupting the normal flow, it also created multiple opportunities to work on bonding. Five special sessions, legally convened to pass judgment on each extension of the peacetime state of emergency, provided five extra chances.

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Four were missed. One of those was August when the state Office of Management and Budget said they shouldn’t act on finances while the state was selling bonds from previous budgets. But the others were swings and misses.

The fifth was not, and lawmakers avoided going into the 2020 election having failed to accomplish their one assignment of the year.

5. The single-subject rule was of little concern. Again. 

The Minnesota constitution Article IV, Section 17, states: “No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.” 

That has generally been interpreted as a way to stop log-rolling: putting varied items in single bills as a way of collecting enough votes to pass them.

But that has been overlooked, both by the Legislature and by the courts, because it is easier to combine all the bills related to a handful of topics into a single bill, with a single vote. And yes, it forces lawmakers who like something in a bill to help pass items they don’t like.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, left, gets a thumps-up fist bump from state Sen. David Senjem, right, author of the Senate Capitol Investment bill, after the Senate passed the $1.87 billion bonding bill.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, left, gets a thumps-up fist bump from state Sen. David Senjem, right, author of the Senate Capitol Investment bill, after the Senate passed the $1.9 billion bonding bill.
It reached its height — or depth — in 2018 when all of the omnibus bills were swept into a single omnibus bill (dubbed Omnibus Prime). One vote adopted the entire workload of the four-month session. 

But the bonding/taxation/supplemental budget package this week might be the first time all of the financial bills were combined. The tax bill included what is termed Section 179 conformity, which brings the state and federal tax treatment of how equipment purchases are depreciated, a move that helps farmers and small businesses. The budget kept open two small prisons, and their 122 jobs, in Togo and Willow River; and it reimbursed the National Guard and State Patrol for costs of responding to riots in the Twin Cities; it also gives pay hikes to state troopers and personal care aides.

Why do one such bill, for the first time anyone can recall? 

“By putting these two issues together, we make it possible to have both a bonding bill and a tax bill where neither would be possible on their own,” said Hortman in July.

There were a few complaints, but only a few. “It may not be out of the ordinary these days, but it’s not appropriate,” said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. “Just because the courts have let us get away with it, doesn’t make it right.”

And Rosen asked that it not become a habit. “I’m hoping this is not the standard going forward,” she said. “Please, let’s not do this again.”