The usual number crunching during bonding season in St. Paul took on new dimensions and higher stakes with the advent of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
In terms of two forms of funding — the 2020 Bonding Bill and allocations from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources — the onus will be on lawmakers to properly handle the flow of money to vital projects across the state during a time when the U.S. economy is in dire straits.
As a result of COVID-19 and an abbreviated session, both items were tabled and will be addressed during an upcoming special session June 12, leaders from both parties announced earlier this month.
State Rep. Dale Lueck may have summed the general mood best when he said the state Legislature has to take a hard-line stance against any unnecessary spending in the months ahead. It represents a careful austerity approach, he said, which is needed in light of the economic implosion the country is experiencing with COVID-19.
“This isn’t a Christmas tree,” Lueck said of the upcoming process where projects are haggled over and judged for their worth. “The problem here is those things we don't want to fall behind on. (For some projects), there’s a direct correlation to stimulate the economy. But the opposite side is spending too much on bonding, just going crazy, and putting everything but the kitchen sink in.”
State Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, expressed frustration that so many key pieces of legislation were left on the House floor during the crisis.
“It was quite frustrating, you know, to go through many committee meetings and talk about good things from those,” Poston said. “And then not be able to get them over the finish line because of this COVID issue that really threw a wrench into the works. Hopefully we can get some things finished.”
Lueck and Poston were joined by their fellow local lawmakers in Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, as well as state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, as well as state Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa.
Heintzeman repeatedly declined to comment other than by email, citing a discomfort with face-to-face or phone interviews and expressed sensitivity with how prior statements were presented in the Dispatch.
The bonding bill
Unprecedented in modern Minnesota Legislature history, lawmakers were unable to pass a statewide bonding bill — typically the single largest piece of legislation every biennium, with repercussions for communities all across the state.
Local lawmakers said bonding bills are usually haggled over and negotiated extensively, which didn’t lend itself to this abbreviated session with emergency actions needed to address COVID-19. With the special session looming on the calendar for June 12, lawmakers from both sides will look to craft a bonding bill that meets the needs of Minnesotans, they said, while also giving due deference to the sharp economic downturn in the coronavirus crisis.
According to Gazelka, both the House GOP and Senate GOP are united behind a $1.5 billion proposal. For reference, last year DFLers in the House under Speaker Melissa Hortman were pushing a $2.5 billion proposal and Gov. Tim Walz said he was looking for a $2 billion bill, though both have since downscaled their proposals.
However, Lueck said he wasn’t in favor of $1.5 billion and expressed scepticism the state could afford that much in bonding with a rough economic stretch ahead.
“We're in for a real rough ride over the next two years, trying to straighten out this budget,” Lueck said. “That $1.5 billion actually makes me uncomfortable as being just a bit too high.”
Ruud said the bonding bill — whatever figure it ultimately comes to — needs to be a lean, well-constructed piece of legislation with no room for vanity projects or political gamesmanship.
“It has to be solid infrastructure and cheaper for our universities,” Ruud said. “It should be a slimmed down bill without any frills on it, but, you know, our roads and bridges need attention, our universities and colleges — we need to support them. And especially now because it's going to be challenging.”
In his email, Heintzeman stated the nature of the bill — which requires a two-thirds majority to pass — would mean it’ll be hashed out in detail before widespread bipartisan support can be achieved. Hopefully, this will lead to a more cooperative relationship between representatives and the governor.
“Thankfully, bonding requires a two-thirds majority and currently needs bipartisan support to pass. Republicans in the House are ready to work with the governor on a bonding bill as soon as he once again recognizes the Legislature as that co-equal branch of government and works with elected leaders around the state,” Heintzeman wrote. “His current ‘go it alone’ top down approach to our COVID-19 response is heavy-handed and unethical.”
The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resource, which develops recommendations for lawmakers on environmental spending from state lottery money, is billed as a long-term, stable and consistent source of funding for conservation-oriented projects.
In mid-May, the DFL-led House approved $61.4 million from that fund and Senate Republicans passed a competing measure of their own. Gazelka and Ruud both noted the GOP offered to pass the LCCMR bill as it was presented, if Walz approved a two-year moratorium on “California-style” emissions restrictions the administration has trotted out — a stipulation the state Legislature has no control over.
Both sides were unable to come to an agreement during the regular session. While the issue is up in the air, a litany of projects throughout the state remain in flux without a key source of funding to get them off the ground.
Local lawmakers expressed mixed opinions on the fate of the LCCMR this special session.
Lueck said he expects the issue would have its day in the special session, one way or another, but noted that if the funding doesn’t go through, these projects may be in financial limbo until at least the first quarter of 2021. These funds should remain in place, he noted, per the function of the LCCMR.
However, Lueck also expressed skepticism that the state Legislature will address all the issues slated for a special session. While prior special sessions have typically dealt with one or two pressing issues, this one has a whole list of issues and a bonding bill to tackle.
“It would be really inappropriate to set anybody’s expectations up when there’s a whole bunch of stuff to be taken care of in a special session,” Lueck said. “That's just not the way it works. A special session is called for one, maybe two very pressing specific items, and it really would be questionable whether those kinds of issues would by themselves earn a special session.”
On the other hand, Poston expressed more optimism that LCCMR funding and projects dependent on that funding would be addressed.
“No,” Poston said of the potential to drop projects or leave the LCCMR in limbo. “I think that we have the time and I think that we realize that our regular session was cut very short.”