ST. PAUL — Billions of dollars in state public works construction projects are on hold, and no one knows if the Minnesota Legislature will make money available for them in 2017.
The 2016 Minnesota Legislature failed to fund projects like safer rail crossings, adding to and renovating existing college facilities, improving safety at state mental health hospitals, fixing or removing dangerous dams, constructing flood-prevention structures and hundreds of other projects state and local officials say are needed. Early in 2016, they produced more than $3 billion in construction requests.
“We are going to fall $1 billion behind,” incoming Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said about funding public works projects, financed by the state selling bonds, if a significant public works bill does not pass in 2017.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to submit a plan to spend nearly $1 billion in the legislative session that begins Jan. 3. But Republicans are reluctant to produce a big bonding bill in the same year they will fund a state budget to the tune of more than $40 billion for the next two years.
Proponents of construction projects, mostly in greater Minnesota, will lobby legislators hard to get the state money. That already happened late in 2016 as legislative leaders and Dayton examined the possibility of a special legislative session, with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities among those telling policymakers that the construction work would help local economies.
Bonding generally is done in even-numbered years, but a dispute over transit funding killed the 2016 bonding bill. Negotiations that ended in December stopped talk about a special legislative session that would have had that failed legislation on its agenda.
Besides building and fixing government facilities, Democrats often talk about the number of people the money employs.
The GOP does not reject a bonding bill, but House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said in a recent Forum News Service pre-session briefing that if one passes, “I would guess it would be a smaller one.”
While Republicans hold the majority in the House and Senate, they do not have enough votes to reach the required super majority to borrow money. That means Democrats who want a bigger bill, and different projects than the GOP wants, will have a say.
“We are open to a bonding bill, but it would be end of session,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, who will be Senate majority leader.
One change may free some bonding money.
In 2016, Republicans turned much of the bonding bill into a transportation-funding package after the two parties could not reach agreement on transportation-only legislation. The pre-session briefing brought out a desire to make another run at a transportation funding bill.
A bonding bill, which will begin with Dayton offering his ideas in January, is designed first as a method to keep the state’s buildings and other infrastructure in good shape. It also builds new facilities and adds to Minnesota’s holdings, such as when provisions pass to enlarge the park system.
The every-other-year legislation also can provide money to local communities. In some years, money goes to build civic centers and other facilities. In 2016, Dayton emphasized state aid to help local government build and improve water and sewage treatment plants as part of his effort to clean the state’s water, some of which has been deemed unsafe for people.
The incoming House chairman of the bonding committee, Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said that he and other Republicans agree that infrastructure is the most important part of a bonding bill.
“Where you run into problems in a bonding bill is you have to ... and have some votes from the minority,” he said, which in 2017’s case could expand the bill so much that it loses Republican support.
Urdahl predicted a bonding bill for “some pressing projects,” but a big one will not come until 2018, “the way it normally is done.”
The representative handing the bonding gavel to Urdahl, Republican Paul Torkelson of Hanska, said he “would be very surprised” if there is a big 2017 bonding bill, adding that “it is really too bad.”