Due to legislative gridlock, more than $1 billion in construction projects left on the table

The failure to pass a public works bill will cost jobs, while infrastructure continues to deteriorate

By: - June 29, 2020 6:00 am

Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Lawmakers left St. Paul with some big-ticket items still in limbo, including a big public works bill that has become an even-year tradition of the Capitol. 

Known around the Capitol as a “bonding bill,” it allows the Legislature to borrow more than $1 billion for construction and maintenance projects around the state, spending borrowed money on everything from water infrastructure to bridges to university dorm upgrades.

Normally the bill is one of the main items on the Legislature’s to do list in the second year of a biennium, but it requires a supermajority to pass. That didn’t happen during the regular session that adjourned in May, nor during the recent special session.

If the Legislature has another special session, the bonding bill and other big issues — the biggest of them police reform — will be back on the table. But with the last one ending in recriminations and the November election getting closer by the day, Capitol insiders aren’t confident it will happen. 

Which means more than $1 billion of projects may not get done, even though the economy is in the tank, both Republicans and Democrats agree the work is badly needed. 

Gov. Tim Walz, the DFL-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate began the year far apart, but bonding committee chairs Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, and Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, have been working on a $1.1 billion to $1.35 billion compromise. 

Senjem said they’ve been going through hundreds of proposed projects line by line, and are close to a deal — should the Legislature come back into session. 

He’s certain they’ll get there, even if lawmakers don’t return to vote on it until January. 

“It’s an extremely laborious task,” he said “We were hopeful that we could get something on the table (by the end of the special session) but it just didn’t work.”

They’re in agreement on National Guard armory upgrades; dam repairs; state veterans home renovations; a $20 million ventilation system in a state laboratory; widening Highway 10 north of Wadena; and, $50 million to replace St. Paul’s Kellogg/Third Street Bridge, where engineers found cracks in 2014.

They’ve agreed to spend about $95 million for the university system’s facilities, including replacing the University of Minnesota’s Child Development Building and renovating a dorm on the Duluth campus.

They’d likely throw a few million dollars at the struggling Minnesota Zoo and $200 million for water and sewer projects in cities. 

Now they’re negotiating economic development grants — which are sprinkled to parks and theaters all over the state. 

Senjem said they haven’t gotten any requests for funds to rebuild Twin Cities neighborhoods damaged by arson and looting in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, but that’s another possibility.

Walz still wants a big bonding bill and blamed Senate Republicans. “The lieutenant governor and I spent many, many days, dozens of trips to armories in Moorhead and Fergus Falls, to water treatment plants across this state, to the University of Minnesota Child Development Center, the number one place in the country but a building dated that’s from the 1950s,” he said during a press conference. 

“We put that together. We introduced it. We had comments from thousands of Minnesotans. We went down in the sewers of Minneapolis to see what those pipes looked like and the Senate has nothing this week. No bill.”

But Senjem said they will have a bill ready to go whenever the next session happens.

“These are key infrastructure projects. I’m not even going to begin to believe that the governor’s not going to want to make these investments, not only from the standpoint of the projects but from the standpoint of the jobs they produce,” he said. “Right now we need people at work. Over a billion dollars worth of public money put toward infrastructure will put a fair amount of people to work all over the state of Minnesota. So that’s attractive right now.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.