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After strange interlude, sprinklers apparently out of bonding bill

With less than a week left to go in the session, Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday issued his first veto threat of the year, declaring that he would sink the entire $846 million bonding bill if the Senate doesn’t remove the one provision in which there is virtually no public money at stake.

That measure would bar the state and local units of government from requiring the installation of sprinklers systems in new single-family homes. While sprinkler legislation has been a perennial at the Capitol in recent years, the stakes have never been so elevated.

Calling the inclusion of the measure in the bonding bill “out of line” and “unacceptable,” the governor drew attention to a fight that has occurred almost entirely behind the scenes.

As this story was being published, it appeared that leadership in both chambers would accede to Dayton’s demand. House Capital Investment Chair Alice Hausman told reporters on Wednesday that the sprinkler provision would not be included in either chamber’s final bonding package.

While firefighters and sprinklers manufactures favor the Administration’s pending plans to use administrative rules to require sprinklers in new homes over 4,500 square feet, construction and real estate interests contend such requirements are unnecessary and expensive. They wanted state law to explicitly prohibit such mandates.

The late-in-session controversy also underscored a political reality: the sometimes stark divide between metro area DFLers and their outstate colleagues.

While such splits have regularly emerged over the years – most recently, in the continuing environment vs. jobs battle over the proposal to mine copper and nickel near Hoyt Lakes – the sprinkler fight illustrates the intra-party fissure in especially vivid terms.

Regional tensions in DFL

Consider, for instance, the April 24 vote on an amendment from Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, which incorporated a two-paragraph no-sprinkler mandate into building code legislation. In a floor vote, Senjem’s amendment sailed through the Senate 44 to 20.

Supported by the entire GOP caucus, Senjem’s amendment also garnered votes from 17 Democrats. Some of those senators, including Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, are among the most senior and influential figures in the DFL caucus. More notably, all but three of those 17 hail from outstate, mostly rural districts.

By contrast, the 20 DFL senators who opposed the Senjem amendment all represent districts in the Twin Cities metro area.

A raft of other stand-alone sprinkler bills at the Legislature this year never made it beyond bill introductions, a tacit acknowledgment that they would fall victim to a veto from Dayton. Still, those bills – and their chief authors – speak to the same divide.

In the House, for instance, Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Lake, floated a modified version of the Senjem amendment that would bar any sprinkler requirements for single-family homes that are not located in the seven-county metro area and are less than 7,000 square feet. In the Senate, identical legislation was offered by Anzelc’s fellow Iron Ranger, Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids.

By contrast, urban lawmakers such as Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, introduced bills to require that real estate brokers inform prospective buyers that homes without sprinklers systems don’t meet the standards of the International Residential Code. (That’s the code the Dayton Administration is citing in seeking to impose sprinkler requirements on large, new single-family homes.)

For some at the Capitol, the reemergence of the sprinkler issue – and its sudden ascent as an end-of-session political chip – came as a surprise. In part, that is because none of the bills went through a traditional committee process.

Last week, several metro area legislators on the Senate Finance Committee bristled when they discovered that the no-sprinkler-mandate language had been wedged into the bonding bill.  At that hearing, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, complained that it was not relevant to the public works projects and said its inclusion is “basically holding us hostage to a provision we’ve never supported.”

“I think that’s a pretty poor way to get a controversial piece of legislation through,” said Dibble.

Stumpf defended inclusion

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, who represents rural northwestern Minnesota and chairs the Capital Investment Committee, defended the decision to wrap the sprinkler legislation into the bonding bill.

Noting that the state invests “hundreds of millions in housing,” Stumpf said mandating sprinkler systems in new homes would inevitably drive up housing costs and, therefore, has “a connection to what we’re doing here.”

The debate came to an end after the committee rejected Dibble’s call to strip the sprinkler provision.

For activists on both sides of the issue, this session has been unusual, mainly because they’ve had so little opportunity to present their views.

“We haven’t had a chance to testify. There has been no testimony,” said Wayne Kewitsch, the vice president of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, as he waited outside the House chambers on Tuesday with fellow firefighters. “Nothing has happened in public on this. There has been no debate on this issue. None.”

Shawn Nelson, the president of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities, said the absence of such discussion is really not that striking, considering that lawmakers have scrutinized the issue repeatedly in recent years.

While a majority of legislators are against requiring sprinklers in new single-family homes, Nelson said, there is “more support where there is less of an impact.” In other words, the support for such mandates is centered in the central cities and inner tier suburbs where few new homes are constructed.

Before the provision was stricken from the bill, Nelson said he suspected Dayton’s veto threat was a bluff. “But it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen what deals are going to be made,” he added. In an effort to shore up support, the Builders Association hired Robert Vanasek, the former DFL speaker of the House, to help with the last-minute lobbying push.

As he headed to caucus on Tuesday morning, Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said he was caught off guard by the high stakes surrounding the legislation. Hayden, who opposes the inclusion of the sprinkler provision in the bonding bill, said he observed the metro/outstate dynamics of the issue. He also said that he had yet to hear a single word from constituents about sprinklers.

Payday lending ‘at an impasse’

The assistant majority leader said he still hopes to broker a deal on another matter Gov. Dayton named as one of an end of the session priority: legislation to regulate the state’s burgeoning payday loan industry.

While payday loan legislation cleared the House, it stalled in the Senate.

“The advocates have a done a good job of modifying their proposal. But I feel like the industry has not come to the table with anything substantial,” said Hayden. “We’re at a clear impasse. I’m not willing to go any further.”

Hayden said he is still fighting for the requisite 34 votes but – without naming names – added that he has run into resistance from within his caucus. From where in the caucus? “The more moderate senators, especially from the rural areas,” he said. “They want a compromise.”

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