Go big or go home: A massive infrastructure bill would benefit all Minnesotans

Interest rates are low, people are out of work and the state is filled with worthy projects

June 11, 2020 6:00 am

A road in Winona County damaged by flooding. Photo courtesy of FEMA.

As the Legislature moves toward an anticipated special session this week, two things are abundantly clear: Minnesota needs a big infrastructure bill — known in Capitol jargon as a “bonding bill” — and a plan of less than $1.5 billion simply will not do.      

Long before COVID-19 came on the scene, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) and other advocacy groups were calling on the Legislature and Gov.  Walz to pass a bonding bill that invests a minimum of $1.5 billion in infrastructure needs across the state. Now, with the pandemic causing economic upheaval in all corners of the state, coupled with the recent turmoil in the Twin Cities, a large bonding bill is more important than ever. 

At the conclusion of the Legislature’s regular session on May 18, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka told reporters that he and House Speaker Melissa Hortman had reached an agreement on the size of the bonding bill, which he hinted  was in the $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion range. While I am pleased to hear about the speaker and majority leader working together, that dollar amount is far too low to meet the myriad needs facing our state and especially greater Minnesota.

If the Legislature proceeds with a bonding bill of less than $1.5 billion, too many vital projects will be left on the cutting room floor. It means some communities will be unable to provide necessary upgrades to their water facilities or repair dangerous roads and bridges. Important programs aimed at spurring economic development — like the Greater Minnesota Business Development Public Infrastructure grant program — will remain underfunded when they are needed most. New initiatives, such as a proposal to help cities construct facilities to address Greater Minnesota’s dire child care shortage, will be underfunded or left out of the bill altogether. . 

Moreover, a bill of the size upon which Sen. Gazelka and Speaker Hortman are said to have agreed leaves little room for funding to help with the efforts to rebuild public infrastructure damaged or lost during the recent  unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  

At a time when Minnesota communities are struggling, unemployment rates are skyrocketing and needs continue to pile up, it is unfathomable that the Legislature would not invest in a large bonding bill. 

First and foremost, the bonding bill is a job creator. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that every $1 million spent on Minnesota construction projects would generate 15.3 jobs. A $1.5 billion bill would create nearly 23,000 jobs.

Further, Minnesota is not allowed to operate at a deficit, meaning we can’t cut taxes or increase spending to fuel economic growth. Which means the bonding bill is one of very few tools available to quickly help reignite the state’s economy. With historically low interest rates anda AAA bonding rating bonding is a wise investment for our state right now. 

The bonding bill has languished in special session limbo before — and it has not always ended well. In 2016, the last time the Legislature failed to pass a bonding bill during a regular session “bonding” year, we kept waiting for a special session that never materialized. Because there was no bonding bill, dozens of critical projects had to be shelved and thousands of jobs failed to come into fruition. 

That cannot happen in 2020.  

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Bradley Peterson
Bradley Peterson

Bradley Peterson is executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. His work focuses on advocating for state policies and programs that address the unique challenges facing communities outside the seven-county metro area.