A $2 billion bonding bill failed on the House floor Saturday, casting doubt on whether the divided Minnesota Legislature can strike deals on a massive package of construction projects and other key initiatives with just hours remaining in the regular legislative session.
The bill failed on a 75-58 vote, missing the three-fifths requirement needed to pass bonding bills authorizing long-term debt. The sticking point: House Republicans in the minority vowed to block a bonding bill until Gov. Tim Walz gives up the emergency powers he has used to close schools, businesses and public spaces to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The uncertainty surrounding the bonding bill, couched by Democrats as a jobs initiative, is the latest roadblock in a legislative session completely upended by the pandemic.
In a matter of months, the virus decimated a $1.5 billion budget surplus and sent the state $2.4 billion into the red. Legislators took a monthlong recess in midsession and were forced to dramatically scale back their priorities.
When they returned, they switched to committee hearings via video conferencing to accommodate social distancing. For the first time in state history, some called in during floor sessions to vote on sweeping packages of legislation from their homes, offices or even in their cars parked outside the Capitol.
The House floor session Saturday was plagued with technical difficulties as legislators tried to weigh in on the bonding bill and cast votes from home. “Unmute me!” Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, shouted during a debate, unsure if the rest of the chamber could hear her.
The Capitol building, usually bustling with lobbyists and rallies the final weekend of the session, was mostly empty. Even negotiations between legislative leaders and the governor took place over video and conference calls instead of in person.
Protesters throw crumbs
Outside the Capitol, a small crowd gathered on the front steps to protest business closures and other aspects of Walz’s pandemic response. Some waved flags and threw breadcrumbs to represent the economic strain felt by Minnesota families amid the stay-at-home order.
A handful of GOP state legislators addressed the demonstrators, reiterating calls for Walz to lift his restrictions. Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, said lawmakers should trust Minnesotans to make safe choices.
“We need to open the state,” he said. “The only reason we’ve kept this disease under control is because the good behavior of Minnesotans. We already know how to act smart and responsible.”
Most of the demonstrators and legislators attending the rally did not wear masks.
Walz is lifting his stay-at-home order starting Monday, allowing some small businesses and retailers to reopen. But bars, restaurants, hair salons and other public spaces are closed until at least June 1.
Republicans have said Walz’s emergency powers give the governor unilateral authority to address the pandemic in a way that doesn’t include the Legislature. It’s at the center of their opposition to the bonding bill, they said, as well as the $2 billion price tag of the House proposal that failed Saturday.
“I’ve talked about the need to address the budget deficit, I’ve talked about the need for the governor to work with the Legislature, and we have not had those conversations as the clock whittles away,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “I think everybody knows we’re going to be back here in three weeks.”
Still time for a deal
But House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said there’s plenty of time to come to an agreement on bonding and other outstanding issues before the session ends. Although the deadline to adjourn is Monday, lawmakers must wrap up voting on major bills by Sunday night.
“We really don’t need to make the pandemic, which has already killed hundreds of Minnesotans, a political issue,” Hortman said.
Senate Republicans countered Saturday with their own bonding proposal, which totaled $998 million in general obligation bonds and $400 million for trunk highway bonds. The bill devotes $688 million to transportation projects, $203 million for water treatment and clean water infrastructure and $105 million in economic development grants. Another $170 million is divided between the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Universities.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he wants to see a deal on a bonding bill before the regular session ends, along with a delay in tax deadlines for businesses and local governments. He’s also hoping to strike a deal with Democrats on state worker contracts negotiated last year. Roughly 50,000 workers are scheduled for a 2.5% raise this summer. The House has ratified the raises, but the Senate wants to delay the raises set for July.
“I truly believe we’re going to be in a very difficult economic position as a state and we have to all be in that together,” Gazelka said.
Staff writers Stephen Montemayor and Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.