A burst of end-of-session activity pushed a bill packed with $566 million worth of construction and development projects through the Minnesota House on Monday.
With just days to go before the end of the Legislature's working year, the House signed off on a bonding bill that would finance road and bridge projects, flood mitigation efforts and even $44 million to start repairing the aging State Capitol. After months of partisan debate over how big the bill should be, which projects it would include, and even whether there should be a bonding bill at all, the final House version sailed through on a vote of 99-32.
Later Monday, the Senate passed an almost identical version of the bill after five hours of debate and a number of unsuccessful attempts by senators to get their local projects restored to the bill. The two bills now go to a conference committee.
"There are days when I actually have felt like a ping-pong ball, back and forth, back and forth, when one side changes their mind and I'm back and forth, back and forth," said House Capital Investment Chairman Larry Howes, R-Walker, who saw his bill expand from $280 million to $496 million, then $556 million. "But now that we're this close to a vote ... I feel more like a pre-game show of 'Monday Night Football.'"
A number of senators made an effort to talk their local projects back into the bill -- from civic centers to community theaters to a wheelchair softball field -- but only two projects made it back in.
The Senate voted to restore a $500,000 project for a flood wall in South St. Paul and a $2 million renovation for the Harriet Tubman domestic violence shelter in Maplewood. The money for both projects came out of a $50 million pot of money set aside in the bill for economic development grants.
"I think we have a pretty decent bill, from the standpoint of moving Minnesota forward," said Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester. The bill passed by a vote of 45-22.
Tax bill lingers
But as the House was checking the stadium and bonding bills off its end-of-session to-do list, Republican lawmakers were scrambling to salvage one of their caucus' top priorities, the tax bill. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the GOP tax bill Friday, setting off a weekend scramble to come back with something Dayton could live with.
GOP leaders met with Dayton administration officials Monday morning to see if a last-minute deal could be reached, but appeared to make little progress.
The governor objects to the proposal's price tag, which would reduce the state's emergency budget reserve and add $145 million to the projected shortfall in the next budget cycle. The GOP's proposal to freeze statewide business property taxes would cost the state $2.6 billion by 2026.
Dayton officials have told Republicans they support many of the bill's provisions, such as tax credits for companies that hire veterans, but draw the line at inflating the deficit in coming years.
The House bonding bill set off its own weekend scramble as lawmakers worked to close a funding gap between the state's two university systems. On Friday, the University of Minnesota was set to receive $54 million, mostly for maintenance and repair around its campuses, but the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system was to have gotten $144 million. Over the weekend, negotiators gave the U an extra $10 million and reduced MnSCU funding by $12 million, giving the systems $64 million and $132 million respectively.
Other weekend changes included restoring $19 million to build an education center at Camp Ripley and stripping $30 million that had been earmarked for foreclosure remediation, supportive housing and preservation.
The state agency that runs the Minnesota Zoo lost $1 million over the weekend, leaving it with a proposed $4 million for asset preservation, such as fixing the leaky dolphin tank. One unlikely survivor: Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood pool, which clung to the $1.75 million appropriation marked to save the city's last inner-city pool.
As before, the bill tilts toward such brick-and-mortar projects as flood mitigation and bridge repair and omits most local projects such as convention centers, a Nicollet Mall facelift or a new ballpark for the St. Paul Saints.
THE BIG PROJECTS
• $44 million: Capitol repair
• $64 million: U system
• $132 million: Minnesota State Colleges and Universities
• $30 million: Bridge repair
• $10 million: Local road improvement grants
• $78 million: Economic development
• $4 million: Minnesota Zoo
• $1.75 million: Repair Phillips community pool in Mpls