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With a fairly unceremonious motion in the Senate Taxes Committee this week, Democrats in the upper chamber turned negotiations on a bonding bill — and with that, end-of-session dealings — on their head.

Senate’s move on Capitol renovation complicates bonding outlook

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk says there’s no point in releasing a Senate bonding bill until the House sends over a bill first. “I just know, having served there, that bonding bills are always hard to pass (in the House),” Bakk says. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

With a fairly unceremonious motion in the Senate Taxes Committee this week, Democrats in the upper chamber turned negotiations on a bonding bill — and with that, end-of-session dealings — on their head.

DFL Sen. Ann Rest, a longtime advocate of restoring the more than 100-year-old state Capitol building, offered an amendment to the Senate omnibus tax bill on Wednesday that will pay the approximately $200 million remaining on the restoration project in cash over the next three years. The amendment also allows the state to spend $3 million to plan and enter a lease-to-purchase agreement for a new office building to be constructed north of the Capitol. “We have been meeting and discussing this, and we believe this is the right thing to do at the right time,” Rest told the committee.

Until now, the Capitol restoration project has been discussed only in the context of a larger bonding bill. House Capital Investment chairwoman Alice Hausman included it in her $800 million package of bonding projects rolled out several weeks ago, as did Gov. Mark Dayton, who is proposing a bill worth about $750 million. Republicans have signaled the project is a priority for them, too, introducing individual bonding bills for the Capitol project to show their support.

Odd-year sessions aren’t typically major bonding years, but Hausman and Dayton made it known early that they wanted to see an additional package of construction projects passed this year. Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk made it clear he did not. The Senate has delayed rolling out its omnibus  bonding bill this session, and their move to pay for the project in cash — $30 million next year and the remaining $173 million in 2015 and 2016 — complicates the prospects of passing a larger bonding bill even further.

Bakk says the move to add Capitol restoration to the Senate tax bill is to protect the project from getting caught up in end-of-session negotiations. Bonding bills require a 60 percent supermajority to pass, meaning eight Republicans in the House and two GOP senators must vote with all DFLers to pass any construction package this session. “My concern is, the Capitol renovation shouldn’t be held hostage in some kind of end-of-session negotiations in order to do what we all agree should be done,” Bakk said. “The Capitol renovations are a high priority for virtually everyone around here. We are at some risk of not getting a bonding bill. I don’t think using the Capitol as leverage is right, so fortunately we were able to find some room in our tax bill.”

But Hausman professed to have no warning about the Senate’s plans to lump the Capitol project into their tax bill. “This was a total surprise, and of course I don’t like surprises at this point in the session,” she said. “In a year like this, with interest rates so low, to do capital investment in cash is really just irresponsible.”

House versus Senate 

Hausman added that she doesn’t know why Bakk is concerned about the House vote count on bonding; she says she’s had a difficult time just getting the upper chamber to sit down and work with her on a bill this session.  “I don’t like to be pushed to the end, and it’s just too late in the process to be suggesting that we can’t do it,” she said. “If they are worried about votes, the way they could handle that is say, ‘let’s only vote once … let’s sit down and agree on a single bill.’”

Hausman said she’s “comfortable” with the level of GOP support she has for her bonding proposal. “You should never have a plan just in case the bonding bill doesn’t pass,” she said. “Do we have a plan if the tax bill doesn’t pass, or education? What we should be doing is working together to pass one bill.”

But Bakk says there’s no point in releasing a Senate bonding bill until the House sends over a bill first. “We don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on in the House, I just know having served there that bonding bills are always hard to pass,” Bakk added. “There’s no assurance you can get a bonding bill, because it requires a bipartisan vote. So if House Republicans just decide they’re going to dig in, and if they view a bonding bill somehow a win for the Democrats or a win for the governor, they’re probably not going to do one. I just want to take the Capitol out of those partisan conversations.”

Hausman said she’s also worried that the Senate is trying to take control of the Capitol restoration project. Poring over her own copy of the Senate amendment, Hausman circled language of concern for her, including a long passage detailing the relocation plan to the new office building. That part of the amendment details everything from when each person can move out of the Capitol to identifying each person’s new office and parking space. All of those details would have to be run by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, but nothing is mentioned about approval in the House.

“It’s kind of like the Senate taking over the restoration issues,” Hausman said. “There are just a lot of reasons to be offended by it, especially at this point.”

Stumpf weighs in

DFL Sen. LeRoy Stumpf admits the Senate has had a slow start to bonding this year. Part of the reason is that it’s Stumpf’s first year as chair of the committee, and he says there’s a bit of a learning curve. Stumpf held his second and third committee hearings of the year this week, and he spent the first part of session without a committee administrator.

“The other reason is it’s a budget year, and the focus has been on the budget,” said Stumpf. “And now that we are getting to the end of the session, the big thing we are starting to look at is bonding.”

Stumpf said he is working to assemble a larger package of proposals in case a House bill is sent his way, but he doesn’t have a date set to release the proposal, and he can’t say what the total price tag could be. “The bulk of the things we are looking at are, how do we maintain what we have? I think there are some expectations that there will be some new projects in there, but I would say most of them have been through the system several times,” he said. “It’s pretty basic.”

Stumpf did note, however, that putting the Capitol restoration project in the tax bill could free up more dollars for other projects in the Senate version of the bonding bill. “Pending what happens there, that will take a certain load off the bonding side,” he said. “I get the sense most legislators would like to complete … Capitol restoration.”

Republicans still uncertain on bonding bill

Republican leaders are still not staking out their position on bonding bills this year.

Senate Majority Leader David Hann has said he would prefer to just take care of the Capitol project this year and pass a larger bonding package next year. But Brad Biers, a spokesman for the Senate Republican caucus, said they are still working out a position on a bonding bill if one suddenly comes to the floor in the Senate. He said it will be difficult for DFLers to court the two Republican senators they need to pass a bill.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt hasn’t made any hard-and-fast commitments on a bonding bill this session either, but has asked DFL leadership to outline a bonding plan for the biennium. If Hausman wants to pass an $800 million bonding bill this session, for instance, how much will the DFL caucus want to bond for in 2014?

“Our position hasn’t changed before we even start talking about bonding: We want to know what a two-year plan looks like,” Daudt said. “So really, we are not committed to do anything or not do anything, our focus really is on the budget. We want to make sure we know what happens with the budget.”

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