The Potluck

Major public infrastructure bill falters in final hours of legislative session

By: - May 18, 2020 5:34 am

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Sunday legislative leaders were still working on passing a bonding bill but disagreements remained.

The Minnesota House and Senate adjourned sine die at midnight Monday without reaching agreement on a major public infrastructure package, putting off the legislation until at least next month when lawmakers expect to return in a special session to continue to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite a flurry of negotiations, legislative leaders were unable to overcame impasses on a number of items, including how much to borrow for the major public works package. DFL lawmakers urged a much larger borrowing package to fuel construction jobs during the presumptive recession and fix Minnesota’s aging infrastructure. Republicans said the state should limit debt service during tough budget times.

Senate Republicans pressed ahead with a $998 million bonding bill Sunday, but the effort failed without DFL support. House Democrats similarly failed to win GOP support just a day before on a much larger $2 billion bonding bill.

The inaction brought to a close the strangest legislative session in anyone’s memory. Beginning in March, members met and voted remotely, and the State Capitol became an eery ghost town as just a handful of masked lawmakers and aides kept Minnesota’s democracy going during a pandemic.

In the waning hours, lobbyists, lawmakers and members of the Capitol press corps would normally be closely tracking the end-of-session negotiations that occur largely behind closed doors. 

Instead, legislative leaders were conducting negotiations entirely by phone or Zoom video conferencing. Also slowing down the legislative process this year is the working arrangements adopted during the pandemic. Non-partisan staff are working remotely, further slowing down the legislative process.

“We have not met in person at all,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said. “It’s not ideal. It’s much more difficult.”

The health measures enacted in both chambers as a result of the pandemic also slowed down proceedings, particularly in the House where House Chief Clerk Patrick Murphy had to call and manually record the votes of all 134 House members for each bill. Many members voted by teleconference.

The Senate had earlier planned to hold its final floor session outdoors on Monday to allow members an opportunity to give retirement speeches in person, but Gazelka said late Sunday the event had been called off.

Senate Republicans late Saturday advanced a measure over DFL objections to freeze salaries this year for more than 50,000 state workers, while restoring raises in July 2021 if the state swings back to a budget surplus. The measure would have modified contracts that were previously agreed to. 

Republican lawmakers in recent weeks have said it would be unfair for the Legislature to move forward with ratification of nearly a dozen labor contracts with unions representing workers at state colleges, universities, prisons and other state agencies. 

“The whole state of Minnesota is hurting right now,” said state Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch. “There are 650,000 people unemployed across the state, businesses are closing for good and people are losing their livelihoods every day. The bill today is fair to every Minnesotan, both state employees and the taxpayers.”

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, criticized Republicans for what she characterized as “inaction” on top legislative priorities in a statement early Sunday morning.

“Today, Republicans voted against compensation protections for the school district hourly employees that are supporting our children, failed to approve state employee contracts that were agreed upon, and blocked local jobs and projects across the state,” Kent said.  “I’m disappointed that in a time when Minnesotans across the state are stepping up to help their communities during a time of so much uncertainty, Republicans have failed to pass meaningful legislation that would help people in every corner of the state.”

The Legislature could be forgiven their lack of urgency: Lawmakers are almost certainly returning to St. Paul next month for a special legislative session, a requirement if Gov. Tim Walz seeks to extend emergency powers. 

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.

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