US Politics

Capitol cooperation or leverage point? Public works plan tests parties

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Capitol cooperation or leverage point? Public works plan tests parties

A sprawling package of public construction projects will soon result in the legislative session’s first real showdown, with Democrats who so far have driven an ambitious agenda through needing help from Republicans who have few other points of political leverage.

At stake is $1.9 billion in financing for college campus repairs, local roadwork, water treatment facilities, trail improvements and more. Action on the plan is expected in key House and Senate committees this week, with likely floor votes ahead in early March.

The public works package is usually one of the last to emerge and come up for votes. It takes lawmakers considerable time to winnow down the projects that the state will sell bonds to pay for. This one came together quickly because it builds off the framework of last year’s discussions when the bonding bill and pretty much everything else fizzled.

Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter underscored an urgency to move fast as the bill was put forward in the House and Senate Capital Investment Committees.

“Unlike expensive wine or cheese, these projects aren't getting better with time,” Schowalter said. “What they're doing is they're getting more expensive and more out of date. Plans for these projects were put together almost two years ago.”

Bonding bills tend to be political puzzles because lawmakers try to keep them geographically balanced and make sure members of both parties come away with projects important to them. Sometimes the prospect of a ribbon-cutting back home serves as the grease to get other key bills passed.

This is the one area where it’s difficult for majority party Democrats to go it alone.

Because it involves state debt — in this case about a $1.5 billion bond issuance — it requires a 60 percent vote to pass. Even if all Democrats vote for it, they’ll still need at least 11 Republicans in the House and seven in the Senate to get it through.

Another wrinkle here: There are actually two bills that make up the full slate of construction items.

One authorizes the bond sale and the other pays for $400 million worth of work in cash. Democrats can pass that second one on their own if they choose.

It might not be known if Republicans are willing to go along with the borrowing bill until the voting happens. Republicans have been part of negotiations but aren’t committing to voting for it yet.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson and Republican Senator Karin Housley, the GOP lead on bonding, said their members aren’t ready to back a bonding bill until they see progress on tax cuts with a share of Minnesota’s $17.6 billion projected surplus.

A man and a woman laugh as they talk
Minnesota Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks and Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, talk to a reporter on the Senate floor.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

“I think it's not too much to ask for that, as we see some passage of tax relief for Minnesotans or ways to get money back to Minnesotans before we see a bonding bill move forward,” said Johnson of East Grand Forks.

Housley, R-Stillwater, questioned the rush.

“We do know that there are some projects that have been put off for a while that need to get done this summer or know that they're going to get them done. So we absolutely want to do a bonding bill,” she said. “But there are not seven members that will be voting for this bonding bill if it comes before us shortly.”

Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said waiting only delays the resulting construction work.

“People told us they were tired of gridlock and inaction,” she said. “And we came here ready to work.”

The House must act first on borrowing bills. If it goes down there, it wouldn’t be the first time lawmakers failed in an initial attempt.

Democrats would have to decide whether to bulk up the number of projects they’d pay cash to undertake.

This package represents just a slice of the construction spending they want to do this year. Another bonding bill is already in the works. 

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said her caucus is contemplating a “with or without you” strategy if Republicans balk.

“At a certain point, it’s fish or cut bait,” she said.

People clap in a crowd
Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, Sen. Jen McEwen during the PRO Act signing ceremony on Jan. 31 at the Minnesota Department of Revenue.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Practically speaking, the timing could matter with another construction season just around the corner and many projects ready to go.

Mankato city manager Susan Arntz said an upgrade to a regional wastewater treatment facility that serves 10 communities has grown more expensive with delay and is in dire need of state help. There is $11.6 million in the borrowing bill for it.

She seized on Schowalter’s analogy.

“It’s the least sexy thing that we do in Mankato. It also does not get better like wine or cheese either,” Arntz told lawmakers last week, describing how the plant is being patched together while a long-term fix remains in limbo. “We are sitting in a failed condition in our current operation.”

Lisa Bode, government affairs director in Moorhead, said the city is counting on $11 million for a flood mitigation project and is angling for more for other initiatives.

“If we can pass this very soon both in the House and Senate, we have shovel-ready projects that can be implemented yet this summer,” Bode said. “So it would help us with inflation, it would help us make great progress on this.”

Other money in the bill would go toward prison renovations, railroad crossing safety enhancements and recreation or cultural centers. 

Somali artifact curator and museum director Osman Ali expressed appreciation for the inclusion of $3.9 million in financing toward developing a site in Minneapolis geared toward sharing the heritage of the state’s east African community.

“When the project is complete, we will make history in the creation of the permanent home for the only Somali American museum in the world, making it possible for Somali youth to have an opportunity to study their traditional culture,” Ali said, describing it as a place for exhibits, performances and classes. “And space for building a bridge between the communities to learn from each other.”

* This article was originally published here
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