With dozens of bonding construction projects in limbo across the state, the Minnesota House couldn't even agree on a bill to fix the roof over its own head.
The $221 million bill that would have fully funded repairs to the crumbling, century-old State Capitol failed 80-50 Thursday, falling one vote short of the three-fifths majority required for passage of bonding bills. DFLers, who complained they were left out of the bonding bill process, put up 11 votes, requiring nearly every Republican to vote for the bill.
The defeat of the Capitol restoration bill was a stinging setback for House supporters, who had hoped that separating the Capitol repairs from the more controversial statewide bonding project list would make for easier passage.
Thursday's vote is now casting doubt on whether any borrowing bill will pass this session, as the Legislature rushes to adjourn by a self-imposed deadline of April 30.
Still hanging is Gov. Mark Dayton's proposal for $775 million worth of projects statewide and the GOP Senate's $500 million bonding package. The House's other bonding bill is a scaled-down $280 million package, crafted virtually without DFL participation and which has few projects in DFL districts.
Those three bonding bills include millions for such projects as road improvements, new college buildings, civic centers and flood control projects. Backers of other projects, like Minneapolis's Nicollet Mall face-lift, the Southwest light-rail corridor and a new minor league ballpark for St. Paul, are still hoping to lobby them into the bonding bill.
Many House Republicans were more inclined to support the Capitol restoration over the general bonding package, which was limited largely to preserving and maintaining existing state roads, buildings and bridges.
House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said the bonding bill defeat was "petty, it's childish and it's embarrassing." If DFLers wanted a larger bonding bill, he said, "that's great. But to kill off something as historic as the State Capitol's renovation and repair, I think that's a new low, even for the House Democrats."
Everyone agrees the Capitol is in dire need of repair, but many DFLers wanted to pay for repairs in installments, leaving more money for other bonding projects elsewhere in the state.
"We need a larger bill," said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. "Not just to accommodate DFL projects as opposed to Republican projects, but to do the right thing for the state of Minnesota." Thissen said House and Senate leaders on both sides should hammer out a mutually acceptable compromise on bonding.
"This was a bill that Republicans put together in isolation," Thissen said of the Capitol restoration bill. "We figured if the Republicans were really committed to their approach, we'd put up enough votes to make sure it passed." Three Republicans were excused from voting. Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, who typically votes against bonding bills, voted no.
Asked whether he would bring the House's other bonding bill to the floor, Capital Investment Committee Chairman Larry Howes, R-Walker, said, "I think we'll take a deep breath and think about it. How do I get the votes?"
Capitol insiders expected the House would send the Capitol restoration bill over to the Senate, which would then add other statewide projects to it. The bill would have then landed in a conference committee to hammer out the differences.
Even with little time remaining in the session, Thissen said he hopes Republicans reach out to DFLers to quickly piece together a bonding package that can pass.
Republicans, however, must walk a delicate line in creating the right mix of projects. Many GOP members are loath to run up the bonding package, which is financed by selling state bonds that typically are repaid over 20 years. Some Republicans already believe the bill is big enough. Adding DFL projects would drive up the cost and cause more Republicans to drop their support. Bill sponsors could reach a point where they are adding projects to gain a DFL vote and losing a Republican vote at the same time.
If the Legislature doesn't pass a bonding bill, major projects in every corner of the state would be left in limbo. And the Capitol will go another year with chunks of masonry falling off its roof.
"Our beloved Capitol faces a crisis today," said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City. "If the Capitol were a medical patient, the exterior is on life support, the mechanical is in critical condition, the plumbing in critical condition, the electrical condition is in serious condition."