House passes $1.8 billion public works borrowing bill

The Minnesota House floor on the first day of the fifth special session.
With most legislators working remotely, members present on the House floor stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in St. Paul on Monday for the start of the fifth special session of the year.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

After months of stalemate, the Minnesota House on Wednesday night passed a $1.8 billion package of construction projects that would be funded mostly by the sale of state bonds. 

The proposal has been hung up by hitch after hitch since spring and required five special legislative sessions to finally reach the finish line in the House. If approved by the Senate Thursday, the projects will take months if not years to go from the drawing board to completion.

The Republican-led Senate has been standing by to see how the borrowing plan would fare in the House. That was always seen as the tougher test because majority House Democrats needed to soften Republican opposition to get the bonding bill through.

In the end, 25 Republicans crossed over to help deliver the super-majority required of the infrastructure bill. It helped that many projects were added that would fall in districts represented by GOP legislators. The vote was 100-34.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, called it a good compromise compared to where it all started.

“I kind of look at it as a big cauldron of soup,” Urdahl said. “People are throwing everything into it. And for me, I have got to get through the cauliflower and asparagus to get to the meat. But it’s all good to get there.”

Even though the bill is the biggest ever of its kind, House Capital Investment Committee Chair Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, said it represents just a fraction of the $5 billion in project requests lawmakers sorted through.

“We couldn’t do everything for everyone,” she said. “But we sure tried hard.”

The bill includes millions of dollars to spruce up riverfronts in Mankato, Winona and Lake City and for amphitheaters in Minneapolis and New Ulm. It also provides money to fix dams, landfills and wastewater plants. Classroom and lab facilities on college campuses are funded, and it’s filled with grants to improve state and regional parks and trails. Armories and public safety facilities would be in line for upgrades, and local road and bridge projects would get sped up.

Some Republicans, including Rep. Jim Nash of Waconia, said that’s why they couldn’t get on board.

“Unbelievably expensive,” Nash said. “And I have said a number of times that if we were going to do a bill we should do some things that are concrete and rebar and maintain things that we own and not build things that are brand new.”

Nash noted that there’s a big state budget deficit on the horizon.

“And we’re spending a lot of money and we’re throwing a lot of candy to kids in the crowd.”

Rep. Julie Sanstede, DFL-Hibbing, defended the bill and the projects that would come to her district, including a taconite mine overlook.

“This isn’t fluff,” she said. “This isn’t candy. This is tourism and this is our economy.”

Senate Republicans were noncommittal about how their vote would come out. As the House vote neared, Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, urged the House leadership to leave the door open for additional negotiation.

"The Senate deserves a chance to voice our concerns," she wrote on Twitter. "This is too important for a take-it-or-leave-it negotiating tactic."

DFL Gov. Tim Walz said he’s ready to sign a bill. At a time of low interest rates and with federal help uncertain, Walz said the state infusion will help keep Minnesota construction crews busy.

“This is just good economics,” he said. “We can keep our assets up — roads, bridges, water treatment plants, higher education, communities, putting new roofs on armories in these communities. Keep our assets valuable. They also create jobs.”

The bill also makes some small adjustments to the state budget. It would spare the Willow River and Togo correctional facilities from closure. And it would reimburse the Department of Natural Resources and State Patrol for expenses for their role in quelling the civil unrest in the Twin Cities this spring.

Labor and business groups lined up behind the proposal.

Unions representing carpenters, electricians, pipefitters and heavy construction workers know they’ll be busy. 

The state Chamber of Commerce likes it for another reason: The package was sweetened with a $200 million tax cut. That’s mostly through expanded ability of farmers and businesses to write down taxes on capital purchases.

House Taxes Committee Chair Paul Marquart, DFL- Dilworth, said the tax cut has been in the pipeline for awhile.

“It can fix a retroactive income tax increase that hit our businesses and our farmers by voting for this bill,” he said. “And we can provide our economy a real boost and improve the quality of life for the people of Minnesota by voting for this bill.” 

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