Gov. Tim Walz visited a cramped, aging child research center at the University of Minnesota on Wednesday, hoping to rally support for a major borrowing package to pay for public works projects around the state, including upgrading decrepit university buildings, replacing aging water infrastructure and fixing roads and bridges.
"This is a world-class institution," Walz boasted of the U's Institute on Child Development, which is said to be one of the best in the country, with a focus that includes closing achievement gaps and treating autism spectrum disorder. "But they're working in second- and third-rate facilities."
Walz is taking his pitch on the road, with a planned two-month tour of projects that also extend to the less glamorous: "It may not be the most thrilling thing to walk through a sewage treatment plant, but our communities will not thrive unless they have clean water," he said.
The public works package is an election-year tradition at the Capitol — known as "the bonding bill" — and is again expected to be a centerpiece of next year's legislative session when lawmakers reconvene in February.
With the DFL and the Republicans each controlling one chamber, major legislative achievements will be difficult, but the public works bill is an exception. It gives lawmakers of both parties a chance to bring home important projects, sometimes pejoratively known as "pork." They have incentive to cut a deal — both the House and Senate are standing for election in November 2020.
Because public works bills leverage state debt to pay for projects, they require a three-fifths "supermajority" in order to pass each chamber. Under the current party makeup in the House and Senate, that means both Republicans and Democrats must chip in votes.
State Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, who is chairman of the upper chamber's capital spending committee, has led the panel on two separate tours of three days each to look at potential projects, with another coming next week in southwest Minnesota.
All told, state agencies, the U and Minnesota State and local communities have sought projects that would cost more than $5 billion. The Legislature is unlikely to spend much more than $1 billion, if the recent past is any guide.
"It's one of those years where it's going to be especially difficult because we're not going to do a $5 billion bill. We're having to look more keenly at each of these projects," Senjem said.
Senate Republicans will focus on roads, bridges and water infrastructure, Senjem said. "We have aging systems that were built in the 1930s and 1940s that have worn out physically or are not compliant with current regulations," he said of local water systems.
Walz declined to give the amount he'll propose next year. During the 2019 legislative session, he proposed a $1.3 billion public works bill. The Legislature approved some housing money, but otherwise declined to pass his plan. He said next year's list of projects would likely include much of the same wish list.
The administration is setting up a website so Minnesotans can view and comment on proposed projects.
Republicans in the Minnesota House, who are currently the minority party, are expected to drive an especially hard bargain in an election year where the DFL majority will be looking for legislative victories.
Walz said the state's aging infrastructure needs fixing, and low interest rates mean now is the time to do it. "It makes sense to do it when the need is there and the interest rates are low and you can make these projects work," he said.