Across Minnesota, communities are watching the Legislature, and waiting.
They have roads they'd like to widen, sewer lines to dig, new parks and trails to plan, and construction cranes hovering over the sites of hoped-for civic centers and campus buildings. But first, the Legislature has to decide whether this year is going to be a bonding year.
"We're not sure if there's going to be a bonding bill this year," Sen. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, warned a group of veterans who came to watch the bonding debate in the Senate Capital Investment Committee on Wednesday. "There is a shortage of votes, from what I understand, to go forward with a bonding bill this year. So you have to be cognizant of the political reality here at the Capitol this year."
The committee was debating a $54.1 million request for the Minnesota Veterans Home in Minneapolis. State funding would help the facility add 100 beds and upgrade with new technology, a state-of-the art pharmacy, a telemedicine center, a primary care clinic and a network of tunnels to link the campus.
"We are very keenly aware of that political climate," Michael Gallucci, the state's deputy commissioner of Veterans Health Care, said after the hearing. "The project is up in the air."
Last year, the veterans' home didn't make it onto the half-billion-dollar list of projects the Legislature funded. This year, with just weeks to go before the end of the session, neither the House nor the Senate has brought a bonding bill to the floor.
Rep. Alice Hausman, chairwoman of the House Capital Investment Committee, said she is starting to think it was easier to get bonding bills through a Republican-controlled Legislature than one run by her own party.
"It's so, so, so discouraging," said Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who is also battling Republicans who have mocked items in her proposed $800 million bonding bill — such as a $7 million request for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden — as examples of state government pork.
"I've always said it's harder for a Democrat to pass a bonding bill than a Republican," Hausman said.
As for the Sculpture Garden, she said, those funds would go to fix infrastructure and drainage problems, not to buy new art. Despite critics, she said she sees value in state buy-in for all sorts of community projects, from big-ticket civic centers to local parks and culture projects.
The House bonding bill also includes $50 million for the Southwest Corridor light-rail system, $109 million for State Capitol repairs and about $100 million each for the state's two university systems.
"We would just be disappointing so many communities all around the state if we didn't move with this," Hausman said. "We take some of the pressure off local governments who only have property taxes for local infrastructure and get the economy humming."
Saying no to bonding this year
To bond or not to bond — that is the question for the Legislature. But it's been a long time — 2005, to be exact — since Minnesota has seen a year without a bonding bill. Now, interest rates are at historic lows, labor is plentiful and building materials are cheap. If there was ever a time to borrow to build, bonding supporters argue, now is it.
But some lawmakers are arguing that it might be time to get Minnesota back to its old cycle of budgets one year, bonding the next.
"I'm kind of sick of tapping out the credit card every year," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove.
But this year, he said, the forces working against a bonding bill might be coming from within the DFL caucus itself.
"There seems to be a little strain on relationships," he said. "I don't see their discipline this year. It seems a little fractured."
While the House was readying its $800 million bonding bill, the Senate ripped out the biggest potential bonding project — funds urgently needed to repair the State Capitol — and included it in its tax bill. It was not a move that signaled great confidence that there will be a bonding bill out of the Senate this year.
"Unless something changes, I think the passage of a bonding bill seems highly unlikely," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, noting that Senate Republicans have signaled that they would support more borrowing only if the Senate doesn't raise new revenue in this year's tax bill. The tax bill the Senate passed this week contained $1.8 billion in new revenue.
"And another thing — I don't know if it's going to be possible to get 39 Democratic votes," Bakk said.
But if the House passes a bonding bill this month, Bakk said, the Senate would be ready to bring a bill of its own up for a vote, win or lose.
"There's a question of whether there's votes," said Senate Capital Investment Committee Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, who nevertheless is plowing ahead with hearings on the bonding requests. And there are a lot of them. If he gave everyone everything they asked, he told the committee Wednesday, the state would need to borrow about $3 billion.
The actual Senate bonding bill, Stumpf said, would be in the neighborhood of the $750 million worth of projects Gov. Mark Dayton requested or the $800 million on the House side. Dayton, meanwhile, is still holding out hope for a bonding bill this year.
"Interest rates are very low, [and] there are a lot of urgent needs out there," he told reporters this week. "To me, it's obvious that we need to proceed. I don't know what the Senate's strategy is."