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Bonding: The hour grows late

James Nord//May 2, 2014

Bonding: The hour grows late

James Nord//May 2, 2014

Right now the Senate’s bonding bill is in a spreadsheet that’s quickly shifting, and the bill language is in the hands of the upper chamber’s counsel.

A Senate bonding bill represents the session’s last major fiscal domino. As the end of session approaches, DFL leaders have been laboring in private to complete a framework that will guide their final deliberations on tax relief, supplemental spending and a capital investment package.

As of Thursday, according to Senate bonding chair LeRoy Stumpf, the DFL majorities had reached a preliminary target of $200 million in cash spending for infrastructure projects – a de facto bonding supplement that is expected to include funding for the rest of the ongoing Capitol restoration – and are looking at a total of roughly $850 million in general obligation bonds this year.

In addition, the two chambers also declared a supplemental budget target of $293 million on Thursday, which signals that those deliberations can now begin in earnest.

“It basically boils down to the major budget bills, bonding bill and figuring out how they all fit together,” former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe said on Thursday.

Dayton’s $1.2B a nonstarter

Part of the delay has involved differences between DFLers over the ultimate size of the bonding bill. In his State of the State speech on Wednesday, Gov. Mark Dayton called on lawmakers to pass a $1.2 billion capital investment package, which DFL legislative leaders fully endorsed.

“I’m still hopeful. Certainly the speaker and I had a conversation about the size of the capital investment bill,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said after Dayton’s speech Wednesday, standing in the House gallery. “[We] tried to offer up some scenarios under which we might reach a larger number, but we don’t have that fully resolved.”

Moments later, however, Bakk’s counterpart, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, offered an unequivocal “no” when asked whether Republicans were interested in passing a larger bill.

Bakk declined to discuss the scenarios proposed to Republicans to enlist their support on a super-sized bill. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, told reporters that the Democrats hadn’t offered specific proposals.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee, has to secure the support of every single Democrat in her caucus, plus the votes of eight Republicans in order to pass such a package. The Senate requires at least two Republican votes, plus the support of every Democrat, to move a bonding bill. Her efforts are complicated by the nature of bonding, which is intensely local – a deleted project could mean a vote lost on either side of the aisle.

With all that in mind, Senate bonding chief Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, has been wary of releasing his bonding package too soon. Stumpf says he wants to make sure the proposal is as solid as possible before he submits it for picking apart by hungry lawmakers. A Senate bonding plan was supposed to be released last week, then early this week. As of Friday, the goal was to make it public in the coming week.

“No one has seen the numbers,” a lobbyist who represents bonding interests told PIM. “No one holds things closer to the chest than LeRoy.”

Though the negotiations around bonding are chaotic, this session hasn’t been out of the ordinary, Stumpf said. Bonding is frequently a long slog.

“We aren’t England. The queen doesn’t say what happens,” the lobbyist added. “We still have a process to play out, and that will take some time. We’re running out of time.”

Time pressures felt in House

With the session clock running down, Hausman now faces a tall order in revising her $850 million package while wrangling a sufficient number of bipartisan votes to pass it.

The veteran lawmaker must re-tool her bill, released over a month ago, to accommodate the $200 million cash target that lawmakers recently agreed upon. Though it’s a bump up from the $125 million Hausman proposed to spend in cash, it will actually make her job harder – because now she’s charged with including the full remainder of Capitol renovation costs ($126.3 million) in that cash allocation.

“That additional $75 million [in the cash target] wouldn’t even fund the Capitol,” Hausman said Thursday. “So I am only in a cutting mode.”

Hausman’s challenges are compounded by the practical reality that Republicans want a larger share of the projects in the bill as a condition of supporting it. “I can’t write a bill that just satisfies Republicans,” she noted. “It has to satisfy everybody.”

The Lewis and Clark Water System project, which Dayton highlighted in the State of the State address, is one of the most-watched projects in play. It would bring additional water to the Worthington/Luverne area in southwestern Minnesota, and constitutes a big chip for the Republicans who represent the region at the Legislature. But right now, Dayton and the House are proposing to fund only $20 million of its $71 million cost.

But despite such predicaments, Hann said Democrats simply need to prioritize. “I think there’s plenty of room in an $850 million bonding limit to do all the things that we really need to get done,” Hann said. “Trying to find ways to provide good drinking water to the people of southwest Minnesota, that’s a much better project than trying to take water and turn it into snow up in northern Minnesota.”

Quick passage?

Hausman said she hopes the four caucus leaders and the governor agree to a deal prior to bringing the proposals before each chamber in order to ensure that the bodies only have to vote once.

“If we’re going to go the traditional route where we pass one on the House floor, they pass one on the Senate floor, we got to conference committee – [in that case] we’re here until May 19th,” she said. House leadership has made no secret of its desire to conclude the session early, if only by a few days.

Bakk said the House and Senate are working to get as close together as they can on bonding “so that we can have a very timely conclusion to the session.”

According to Stumpf, part of the delay in releasing the Senate bill has stemmed from uncertainty about the ultimate spending targets.

“This year it seemed like the targets were not quite as clearly defined,” he said. “We for several days kind of got – I wouldn’t say stuck, but we were kind of at a standstill because we weren’t able to make the final decisions unless we knew exactly what we had and we didn’t have to work with.”

Moe said Stumpf and Hausman likely have control of the content of their bills, but leadership will be monitoring the situation closely.

“In the final days they’ll have half a dozen issues that they’re locked up on,” Moe said. “That’s when leadership steps in and tries to cut a deal and get her done.”




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