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Jeremy Miller
Thursday afternoon, the Minnesota Senate approved the bonding bill by a lopsided 64 to 3 vote. In this Monday photo, Senate President Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, adjourned the Senate until audio problems could be resolved for the start of the fifth special session of the year in St. Paul. (AP photo: Star Tribune)

Bonding bill clears Legislature

Exceeding a required super-majority by a full 19 votes, the Minnesota House late Wednesday approved a nearly $2 billion bonding, tax and supplemental budget bill.

The Senate followed suit on Thursday afternoon. There the bill passed by a convincing by a 64-3 margin, with just three Republicans voting no.

That tally far exceeded the 41 votes needed to pass the bill in the upper chamber.

“It’s been a long journey,” Gov. Tim Walz said in a written statement shortly after the vote. “By finally coming together and working across the aisle, Minnesota proved once again that if Washington won’t lead—we will.”

Besides a raft of statewide construction projects financed through $1.37 billion in general obligation bonds, the bill keeps open two prison boot camps that were slated to close in December.

It also achieves federal tax conformity by permitting 100% state-tax depreciation in the same year that farm and business equipment is purchased. And it provides funding for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to process and store sexual assault exam kits and lots else besides.

As amended on the House floor, the bill passed 100-34. Twenty-five GOP members joined all the House DFLers in voting yes. That exceeded the bonding bill’s required 81-vote super-majority by 19 Republican votes.

Wednesday’s House debate lasted more than eight hours. Judging by the tone of a discussion that touched on everything from fiscal responsibility to racial animus, the bill appeared on a possible path to defeat. GOP House members this year blocked two previous bonding bills.

Remarks from Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitken, were typical of the GOP side of the debate. He said bill contained good elements that addressed legitimate legislative responsibilities, including highway funding and rail safety, he said. But he groused that it contained “everything but the kitchen sink.”

“In fact,” he added, “if maybe if we looked hard enough, it’s probably in here.”

Rep. Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud, called the vote one of the hardest of her legislative career. She said Democrats were wrong to frame it as economic stimulus, because it doesn’t go far enough. The real answer for fixing the economy, she said, is lifting COVID-19 restrictions by opening up bars and restaurants so workers remain employed.

“I’m just really struggling with how are we going to pay for it,” said Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, the House Minority Whip.

Only a few Republicans spoke for the bill. One of them, Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, didn’t mention bonding at all, but focused on the benefits of tax conformity.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, who described himself as Minnesota’s “last Eisenhower Republican,” is the House Capital Investment committee’s GOP lead; he helped negotiate the bill. Urdahl listened for hours as fellow Republicans blasted the bill for catering to urban DFL constituencies while busting a budget that already faces a $2.4 billion deficit. A $4.7 billion deficit is projected for the next biennium.

Urdahl reminded the chamber that in 2014, lawmakers passed a bill containing $850 million in general obligation bonds; a year later, they passed another containing about $350 million—totaling about $1.2 billion in GO bonds for that biennium.

The current bill, he said, includes $1.37 billion in GO bonds for 2022-23, plus about $500 million from sources like appropriation and user-financed bonds, plus some cash. Taking all that into account, he said, this bill is not out of line with recent norms.

If passed, he said, the present bill would remove arsenic from farm-country drinking wells, replace a road bridge over the Rush River in Henderson that traps residents in place when the river floods, while building and fixing roads and buildings all over the state.

“The people of Minnesota are looking to us,” Urdahl said. “They want us to do what they sent us here to do and that is to take care of this state. And that is what a bonding bill does.”

Amendments

A great deal of time was spent on amendments, a number of which were successful. Rep. Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, for instance, got an amendment passed clarifying that $7.5 million is for the rest of the current fiscal year will be fund continues operations at the Togo and Willow River prisons through June 30, 2021.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, tried unsuccessfully to pass a measure that eventually would transfer unspent COVID-19 money into the state’s general fund, offsetting the bill’s costs.

Another failed amendment, from Rep. Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, would both bar the state from furthering challenging Public Utilities Commission approval of the Line 3 pipeline project and order courts to immediately dismiss any legal challenge. It was ruled non-germane to the debate.

Yet another amendment, this one from Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, would’ve made passage of the entire bill contingent on the city of Minneapolis pledge to maintain police funding at no less than 2019 levels. It too, was ruled non-germane.

Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, made his commentary a critique of DFL leaders’ response to this year’s riots and crime spike. He questioned the wisdom of spending $12.5 million on an outdoor music venue at North Minneapolis’ Upper Harbor river site when the city, he said, is incapable of protecting spectators.

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, took the opposite tack. The bill would spend $1 million rehabilitating the historic Victoria Theater—part of the bill’s “equity bonding” sub-package. She called that a sign of lawmakers becoming more racially inclusive in their investments. She wiped away suggestions that spending money to prop up community arts is wasteful.

In fact, she said, arts help bind together communities together, especially communities of color, by offering them ways to express their values. “They provide a sense of accomplishment,” Moran said. “That’s what the Victoria Theater would do. Because we value creativity.”

As the debate closed, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, lauded the bill as an historic and unlikely compromise achievement on the eve of a hotly contested election.

Going into the 2020 session in February, he said, most lawmakers probably expected to pass bonding, tax and supplemental budget bills. But during a topsy-turvy regular session that was shut down for several weeks because of COVID-19, that didn’t happen. Nor did it happen in four subsequent special sessions.

“I don’t think really anybody was expecting that we would be passing those three items in October, or that we would be wearing masks, or that most of us would be participating via phone,” he said. “Probably a majority of people hadn’t even heard of Zoom.”

He credited Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, for shepherding negotiations and keeping the bill on track long enough to get it passed through the House.

“There are so many good things here,” Winkler said, urging members to vote yes. “If we can do that in a bipartisan way, we will be showing what the very best of Minnesota politics—what the very best of our political tradition—can bring to bear.”

Though 25 House Republicans voted with the DFL on the bill, most of the minority leadership’s nine members voted no. The lone exception was Deputy Minority Leader Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, who voted yes.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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