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Bonding is back: Tax-bill tussle has overshadowed public-works logjam

Chris Steller//June 8, 2016

Bonding is back: Tax-bill tussle has overshadowed public-works logjam

Chris Steller//June 8, 2016

The 2016 regular session ended in four-letter words and failure to pass legislation on bonding or transportation. Over the next two weeks, a special-session deal seemed to slip further into the offing. Lawmakers’ focus narrowed to a potentially costly mistake in the tax bill that did pass: one two-letter word (“or”) where a three-letter word (“and”) should have been.

A thread was momentarily lost amid the welter of letters, statements, tweets, media availabilities and meeting misfires over “and” and “or”: This is a bonding year.

The bonding bill, which ended up including what transportation measures legislators could muster, was the real problem child among major pieces of legislation. Late to develop, it played a leading role in the legislative collapse on the session’s final night. Now it’s back in focus as leaders plan for a revived conference committee and special-session talks next week.

The conferees, on what for now will have to be more of a working group because the Legislature is not in session, will surely include Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, who chairs the Senate Capital Investment Committee, and Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, chair of the House Capital Investment Committee.

Stumpf and Torkelson led their respective panels on the Legislature’s most ambitious tours of duty, visiting project sites in every corner of the state, from state university campuses to small-town stormwater systems. Then came presentations by state agencies and local officials at hearings in St. Paul.

“There aren’t many bills that affect the public like … bonding,” said Stumpf. “There’s a huge amount at stake.”

It’s a “personal disappointment we didn’t get the job done,” Torkelson said. “I’m still a little sore from that.”

While nursing their wounds since the session, the chairs spent time fixing last-minute mistakes, such as differences between the spreadsheet and the bill language. And talks to advance the bill have continued. Stumpf said Tuesday he last met withthe governor’s office on Friday.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton differed over how open the bill is to revision. A bonding bill must originate in the House, and the Legislature must start anew on bills in a special session.

Is it now open to additions and subtractions? Torkelson hesitated. “I don’t know how to answer that at this point,” said Torkelson. “There are a variety of desires.”

Tangled past

The thread that bonding conferees will be picking up has a twisted history.

Dayton pitched a $1.4 billion plan Jan. 15 after reviewing more than $3.7 billion in requests. He mostly left out roads, bridges and transit, leaving that for a separate, long-term, comprehensive transportation bill that, at the time, seemed doable.

The Senate took its first stab at passing a bonding bill May 5. The $1.5 billion measure fell one vote short of the 41 votes it needed. (Legislation that includes public borrowing must gain a three-fifths supermajority, which in both chambers means at least some support from members of the minority caucus.)

In the House, the Ways and Means Committee sent a blank bonding bill to the floor on May 15, with zeros in places meant for dollar amounts of appropriations. Four days later, an $800 million version of the bill (HF 622) failed to pass by a vote of 69-64. (The supermajority is 81 votes in the House.)

Despite the lack of approved bonding bills in either the House or Senate, leaders appointed members to a conference committee that began meeting May 20, with less than three days left for the Legislature to pass bills. A $1.1 billion bill with $818 million in bonding emerged after the conference committee met in public and leaders met in private.

That set up the bill for this year’s crashing end-of-session drama. With little sand left in the hourglass before the biennial deadline, the measure noisily passed the House 91-39. They sent it quickly to the Senate, where it gained a Southwest light rail-related amendment, by which time the House had adjourned sine die.

That all led to a certain amount of bonding exhaustion, said Gary Carlson, director of intergovernmental relations at the League of Minnesota Cities. “People are tired of the fits and starts of the whole bonding process.”


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