As the year’s fifth special session commenced on Monday, House DFL leaders were optimistic that sufficient Republican votes were available to pass a $1.37 billion bonding bill. However, a committee vote late Monday night suggested those GOP votes might be hard won.
The House’s floor vote on the 155-page bill, which is framed as an economic stimulus and COVID-19 relief package, was expected sometime after noon Wednesday. That’s after this edition’s deadline.
Special Session House File 1 passed to the floor via a straight party-line Ways and Means Committee vote late Monday. Besides general obligation bonds, it includes cash and a combination of user-financed, trunk highway and appropriation bonds that total almost $1.9 billion in capital investments.
The same bill contains about $208 million in tax cuts through the next biennium. Those include $58 million in corporate franchise tax cuts, $1.3 million in “like-kind exchange property” tax reductions and $150.3 million in Section 179 business equipment purchase deductions over that period.
In addition, the bill includes a nearly $35 million, FY2021 supplemental public safety budget that, among other things, would prevent the Togo and Willow River prison closures.
An identical budget measure passed out of the committee Monday night as a standalone bill, suggesting the budget provisions could be extracted for a separate floor vote. The House convened and adjourned Tuesday without taking up any bills.
The Senate did not sit idly by as the October special session got underway. The upper chamber passed several relatively small bills on Monday, including one that allows Polk County to transfer up to $150,000 in law library funds to its courthouse for technological upgrades. The full House passed that bill Monday, too, sending it to the governor.
The Senate also voted 36-31 to strip the governor of his COVID-19 emergency powers — the same step that the chamber has taken in previous special sessions. This time, one Democrat — Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley — crossed over to vote with the Republicans. The governor keeps his powers, regardless, because, once again, the DFL-led House voted against the move.
Those votes were cast against a somewhat ironic backdrop of two key legislators — Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown — having to skip Monday’s session. Both remained self-quarantined after being exposed to Donald Trump during the president’s recent visit to Minnesota. Trump soon afterward tested positive for COVID-19 and was briefly hospitalized.
After finishing its business Monday, the Senate adjourned until Thursday, apparently to await the bonding bill’s fate in the House.
House leaders decided Monday to forestall voting on the bonding and tax bill until mid-week. Had they gone ahead with that vote Monday, they would have needed 15 GOP votes to suspend House rules so that all three required bill readings could be held on the same day. Hortman said she couldn’t count on enough GOP votes for that.
No similar rules suspension is necessary to hold the vote Wednesday. But Democrats still need six Republican votes if they are to reach the 81-vote House supermajority needed to pass a bonding bill.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, on Monday expressed optimism that Democrats can reel in those votes. “I think we are at a point where we have enough minority members on board to pass the bill on Wednesday,” she told reporters.
House DFLers have voted for bonding bills twice this year, but each time they have been thwarted by GOP representatives, who have refused to go along. Senate leaders, too, have said they want a bonding bill to pass. But they have been forced to sit by and watch House bills founder. By law, bonding measures must originate in the House.
“We have to show Minnesotans who is for the bill,” Hortman said. “If we are not able to pass it on Wednesday, at least it will be very, very clear. This will be the third and perhaps final opportunity for the House GOP to join us.”
We’ll know the bill’s fate by the time this is published. But there were reasons for skepticism about its chances heading into deadline.
On Monday night, 18% of the GOP caucus—10 members—voted against the bill. Had one missing GOP Ways and Means member, Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, been present, it likely would have been 11 no votes—exactly one-fifth of the caucus.
Still, the 29-member Ways and Means committee did approve Special Session House File 1, in an 18-10 party line vote. From there, its heads to the House chamber. If passed, the Senate could take it up Thursday.
The Senate Capital Investment Committee, chaired by Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, heard a version of its own bonding-and-tax package Monday morning, albeit in an information-only hearing that took Hortman by surprise.
“Senator Senjem kind of jumped the gun,” she said. “We all thought there was one more day of conversations before he got his bill drafted.”
The Senate hearing produced no votes, but it did demonstrate that the two chambers were nearly in accord on bonding, though the bills are not precise matches. Hortman told reporters she thinks the House and Senate are “on the same page” with respect to bonding. But a little while later, Gazelka poured cold water on her rhetoric.
“There is not an agreement on the bill—yet,” he said in a written statement. “The important things in this bill, about $200 million in tax relief for Main Street and farmers, $700 million for road and bridges, and $300 million in wastewater treatment are being put in jeopardy by additional amendments, conversations and backroom antics we are not a part of.”
As it happened, no amendments were accepted into the House version at Ways and Means, a fact that several House Republicans found hard to swallow. Other Republicans found plenty else to dislike in the provisions that were present.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, was upset that the bill includes nearly $12 million in one-time funds to reimburse the DNR, Department of Public Safety and MnDOT for their responses to the civil unrest that ripped through the Twin Cities after George Floyd’s death. Of that money, about $5 million comes from trunk highway funds.
“My constituents would throw me out of office for voting for something like this,” he said. He suggested that several rural Democrats might also be ousted in the coming election, if they vote for it.
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, reminded Republicans that tax proceeds tend to flow from populous cities to rural areas. Just Monday, she added, Gov. Tim Walz authorized emergency assistance to five rural counties that sustained damage from heavy rains and flooding over the summer.
Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, wasn’t persuaded, arguing that there is distinction between natural disasters and the Twin Cities riots, which she said were the product of failed leadership. “The destruction that happened down there was caused by people rioting,” she said. “It wasn’t caused by Mother Nature.”
Noting that the bill contains both tax cuts and spending hikes even as deficits and likely COVID-19 budget cuts loom, the committee’s GOP lead member, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, urged his members to vote against the package.
“I enjoy tax cuts,” Garofalo said. “But they’ve got to be paid for. You can’t just be cutting taxes without paying for things.”
He said that the bill reflects many of Walz’s spending priorities even if they are scaled back. It demonstrates, he said, that the governor plans to rely on federal bailouts, expended reserves and accounting tricks to offset deficits. He suggested that those are bad habits Walz picked up while serving in Congress.
“It’s pretty clear he thinks that he can avoid any structural changes until beyond his attempt at reelection in 2022,” Garofalo said. “That’s disappointing for the state. It works for Washington, it doesn’t work for Minnesota.”
The bill’s Senate version does not contain the $35 million in supplemental budget money to keep the prisons open while providing the Department of Public Safety money to improve its crime lab and to help process and store rape examination kits.
However, Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said earlier this summer that he wants a supplemental budget to pass sometime before the end of the year, to keep the prisons from closing.
Here are some of bonding bill numbers that, currently, are identical in both the House and Senate bonding bills, along with a few examples of projects included.
There are small differences between the House and Senate bill versions. For example, the Department of Employment and Economic Development portion of the House bill includes $161.8 million in funding, while the Senate bill has just $159.8 million.
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