It would be nice to wrap up a long career with a sense that one’s mission has been accomplished and loose ends have been tied into a tidy bow.
Come May, Senate Capital Investment Committee Chair LeRoy Stumpf hopes to be able to conclude 36 years at the Legislature with some of that sense. Along with GOP Rep. Paul Torkelson, his House committee counterpart, the DFLer from Plummer might be able to deliver to the governor’s desk a $1 billion-plus building projects bill that jump-starts work on government’s deferred maintenance and turns a few long-standing public-works dreams into reality.
But experience, hard work, the esteem of his colleagues and the best of intentions — all of which Stumpf brings to his task — provide no guarantee of success at the 2016 Legislature. Stumpf, Torkelson and the other legislators assigned to assemble this year’s “bonding bill” are not in control of its fate.
Legislators may not get to building projects — the “dessert” of the two-year legislative cycle — if they don’t first choke down a compromise on transportation and taxes.
That isn’t a forecast of childish pique, though the two chambers could be knee-deep in that sentiment if compromise eludes them.
Rather, it’s the result of a constitutionally dictated fact of legislative life: Authorizing the issuance of state bonds requires a 60 percent supermajority vote in both the House and Senate, plus the governor’s signature. Neither the Senate DFL nor the House Republican majority can get to 60 percent alone. A Senate bonding bill needs at least two GOP votes; a House bill needs at least eight DFL votes. Both parties have to be willing to play for a bill to proceed.
Mustering enough goodwill to produce a “win-win” outcome is tough for political machines that increasingly seem calibrated for “win-humiliation.” A move last week by the state Republican Party illustrates: It launched a campaign on social media and radio claiming that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is “pushing a socialist agenda” with a proposed $1.4 billion bonding bill. That’s not a gentle invitation to bipartisan cooperation.
If the year’s two premier bills — taxes and transportation — remain mired in partisan muck come May, goodwill could be in exceedingly short supply. The opportunity particularly for House DFLers to trip up a bonding bill, then campaign against a “do-nothing” House Republican majority, will loom temptingly large.
Rumors that House Republicans might tie a tax cut for business to a bonding bill drew an edgy response Thursday from Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk: “I’d caution them not to play that game.” The DFLer from Cook is already irritated with House Republicans for tying an unemployment benefit extension for laid-off Iron Rangers to a tax break for businesses. He reminded reporters that “nothing needs to pass” this session for state government to continue to function.
He’s right about that. Providing for public buildings is a fundamental responsibility of government. But calamity will not befall this state if no bonding bill is enacted this year. Memories of previous bonding bill collapses — in 2004 and 2007 — and their consequences (DFLers gained seats) are already part of this year’s Capitol buzz.
Stumpf, 71, knows what he’s up against in his final year in St. Paul. But after years of stewardship of Minnesota’s infrastructure, he also knows that this state is falling behind on preserving and maintaining its built assets.
He wants Minnesotans to know that, too.
“The area where we have some of the greatest need is in preserving assets. We haven’t been maintaining things the way we should,” Stumpf said. “I’m talking about water facilities, buildings, streets. We’re not like a business with a set-aside in our operating budget for capital needs. The resources for that just haven’t been there.”
Resources have indeed been short at times, but so has been political will. When state surpluses materialize, the drumbeat for either new programs or “give it back” tax cuts drowns out calls for replacement roofs and water mains.
The competing drums are loud this session, and could cancel each other out. But this year’s fiscal circumstances present a fine opportunity to catch up on asset preservation. About half of the state’s $900 million surplus is deemed onetime money, unlikely to reappear in future years. Spending onetime money on onetime building improvements would appear to make good sense.
Stumpf thinks so, too. In 2014, he linked a $200 million cash bill for facilities improvement to the 2014 bonding bill. He said he’s willing to do something like that again. But first, he wants to assemble a bonding bill too appealing for his fellow legislators to spurn.
Those legislators might want to know one thing more: When Stumpf reflects on all he has done as a legislator, the work he sees in the proudest light is securing state support for flood control in his district, which borders the flood-prone Red River. A ribbon-cutting for a diversion project around the city of Roseau this summer “was kind of a finale for me,” he said. “We’ve fixed problems so they won’t recur.”
That fix was made possible by bonding bills.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.