ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Legislature early Tuesday, July 21, closed out the special legislative session without approving a $1.9 billion local jobs and projects package commonly known as the bonding bill, raising questions about whether a similar measure could pass this year.
The move again put the brakes on potential projects and raised questions for local leaders, state agencies and educators.
Lawmakers had tried and failed during the regular legislative session and a prior special session to strike a deal on the borrowing plan. And last week leaders in the divided Legislature came into a special session with what they said was a deal to borrow money to fund wastewater infrastructure, road and bridge repairs and health and agriculture lab updates around the state.
But Republicans in the Minnesota House of Representatives scuttled those plans in the early hours Tuesday after they said other legislative leaders failed to take seriously their concerns. Both chambers ended the special session Tuesday morning, potentially punting action on the proposal to August or later.
Labor leaders and local elected officials said the latest failure to approve the bonding bill was disappointing and could affect tens of thousands of jobs around the state, not to mention delay the much-anticipated projects.
"Last night, with a good bonding bill in front of them, in my opinion, they chose to fight with the governor instead of create jobs and that's something I just don't understand," Jason George, business manager of Operating Engineers Local 49, told reporters on the Capitol lawn, noting the thousands of jobs lost because without the proposal. "They knew the impact this is going to have and they did nothing anyway, and that raises to disgust for me."
Unlike most years, the Capitol was blocked off to members of the public, local officials and lobbyists due to the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest stemming from George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police. And labor leaders said they phone banked hundreds of calls to key lawmakers to urge them to pass a bill.
Local government leaders made similar appeals to their lawmakers, but that didn't win over House Republicans.
House Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, on Monday said Republicans kept the bill from reaching the 3/5-majority vote needed to clear that chamber because other leaders didn't agree to his condition that Walz cede his emergency executive powers. And he said Democrats had inserted "poison pills" in the plan that made it disagreeable to Republicans.
“Our governor is legislating, that’s what he’s doing,” Daudt said. “Our constitution doesn’t allow that but he’s doing that and you don’t care.”
Democrats said Republicans didn't bring forward genuine counteroffers in legislative negotiations and equated the move to prevent the bill's passage to a "stickup." And House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said Democrats wouldn't be willing to exchange the governor's executive power to deal with COVID-19 for votes on the bonding bill.
“We have a significant need for job creation because of the recession caused by COVID-19, but we can’t stop fighting COVID-19 at the same time. And that is the impossible choice forced upon the governor and Republicans in the Senate, Democrats in the Senate and Democrats in the House,” Winkler said. “That impossible choice cannot be resolved unless (Daudt) is willing to come to the table and compromise in a real way.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, on Monday said his chamber was prepared to take up the bonding bill if it ever cleared the House. And he noted that would likely be the last chance to get the measure through his chamber before focus pivoted to upcoming elections and other issues.
"If a bonding bill doesn’t happen tonight, it’s not going to happen," he told reporters.
That message came through to Democrats involved in negotiations, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said Tuesday. Hortman said Republicans branded the bill "Last Train to Clarksville," referencing the 1966 song by The Monkees.
“It was represented to us repeatedly through the negotiations that this is it,” Hortman said. “The Minnesota Senate is in full campaign mode.”
Lawmakers could be called back for another special session in August if Walz seeks to extend the state's peacetime emergency for another 30 days. The governor could also call lawmakers back for a special session at any time if they reach an accord on bonding or other legislation.
And trades group leaders said he should bring them back immediately to approve the compromise proposal.
"Failure is not an option, they've already demonstrated they can fail," Executive Director of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council Jessica Looman said. "Let's see them succeed."
But Gov. Tim Walz said that pending August bond sales for previously approved projects would delay the approval of another bonding bill. And he said lawmakers should've considered that when they blocked a proposal early Tuesday.
"If we didn't get it done now, it's probably very difficult to get it done before the election," Walz said.