The art of a bonding bill, for a legislative minority

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2014 - 7:16 PM

The 1995 experience can be a guide for Republicans this year.

The stars of the Statehouse Show last year were the DFLers who retook control of the Legislature in the 2012 election. But in the new round of lawmaking that starts Tuesday, watch for some strong supporting roles by Republicans.

That’s because this year’s main event is the authorization of building projects and their financing via 20-year state bonds. And bond authorizations require a 60 percent supermajority vote.

DFLers can’t get there alone. If they get all their own cats in line — a big “if” — they still need two Republican votes in the Senate and eight in the House to pass a bonding bill.

That means that Republican preferences must be considered, I remarked to former GOP state Rep. David Bishop of Rochester. He corrected me: “It’s more than that. They can control the outcome.”

Bishop ended his 20-year stint in the Minnesota House 12 years ago. He’ll turn 85 in a few days — a fine age at which to share one’s lessons about public work. That’s what he’s done in “Legislating Without a Gavel,” a book he’s preparing for publication later this year. It’s a compendium of delightful war stories and sound advice to legislative minorities by one of the late 20th century’s most effective Republican legislators.

He kindly allowed me an early peek at the manuscript. I went straight to the chapter on his role in the 1995 bonding bill.

That was a budget-setting year in which a bonding bill was of secondary importance to most legislators. Bishop wasn’t one of them.

He wanted $1.2 million in state planning funds and authorization for design work to begin on a combined community and technical college campus — today’s University Center Rochester.

In Bishop’s telling, the DFLers in charge of the House that year did no negotiating with Republicans over bonding or much else. They assumed that a few minority Republicans like Bishop would vote for any bonding package they could slap together. They assumed wrong. The minority caucus was offended at the exclusion and decided to stand together in voting no. That meant no bonding bill passed during the regular session.

Bishop went along with his caucus on those votes. But he was delighted when a few other bills got hung up — little things like K-12 funding — and Gov. Arne Carlson called a special session. The little bonding bill could be revived and might include the language he sought for Rochester’s two-year colleges — provided he was a member of the bonding conference committee.

Bishop was something of a partisan maverick. But he and then-Minority Leader and future Speaker Steve Sviggum trusted each other. When Bishop vowed to negotiate in keeping with the caucus’ interests, Sviggum took him at his word and gave him a prized conference committee seat.

The conference committee was soon made aware that no bonding bill would pass in the House without Bishop’s approval, and Bishop wasn’t going along with any bill that omitted the Rochester campus. One can visit a sprawling higher-ed complex in southeast Rochester today to see the result.

“A minority can control a bonding conference committee if its members stay together and advocate for reasonable positions,” Bishop summed up last week. He had a few other caveats: “The minority caucus has to trust its representative on the conference committee. And that member can’t swing by himself.”

I deduced from that lesson that another venerable Rochester solon, state Sen. David Senjem, may finally succeed this year as ranking minority member of the Senate bonding committee in delivering state assistance for the expansion of the Mayo Civic Center.

To the surprise of this and many other observers, Senjem couldn’t get that job done in 2012, even though he was both chair of the bonding committee and majority leader of the Senate.

A long, tortured tale of woe is told by seekers of state help for Rochester’s largest civic gathering spot and for similar facilities in St. Cloud and Mankato. These three became fellow travelers at the Capitol six years ago and have encountered an amazing number of dead-ends since then. But they’re back in Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding recommendation this year for a combined total of $63 million.

Even though that’s just 6 percent of Dayton’s $1 billion package, it’s a lot — especially when some members of Senjem’s caucus don’t think the state’s money should be used for any regional facilities of this sort.

Senjem’s attempt to secure funds for the Mayo Civic Center two years ago ran into GOP opposition in the House and stadium politics in the governor’s office. He thought he put his hometown project in a leading position to win a competitive grant administered by the Department of Employment and Economic Development, only to see it lose out to a new St. Paul Saints ballpark in Lowertown.

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