If the Togo prison in northern Minnesota is going to keep operating, its failing, nearly 70-year-old sewer system must be fixed.
Ceiling tiles fall on people in the University of Minnesota child development building.
In southwest farm country, water treatment funding is needed to better handle the high levels of arsenic and nitrates in wells.
Local and state officials repeated the theme of “needs not wants” time and again as they made the case for projects in the nearly $1.8 billion infrastructure borrowing proposal progressing in the Minnesota House. But the sweeping public works and building plan is far from reality.
Democratic Gov. Tim Walz has suggested his own $1.3 billion proposal that mirrors much of the House plan, but Republicans in the Legislature balk at passing a bill of that size, if any at all, in a year typically reserved for budget discussions.
For the state to take on the significant debt that comes with a bonding bill, a supermajority — 60 percent — of legislators in the House and Senate must approve it and the governor would have to sign off. And Senate Capital Investment Committee Chairman David Senjem, R-Rochester, said he has no plans to do bonding this year.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, noted that Democrats proposed this borrowing plan while pushing for a 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase and other tax hikes.
“Then you throw this on top of it and increase what we pay for our debt service. We’re asking the people of Minnesota to take on, I think, an inordinate amount of debt,” Urdahl said.
House Democrats’ plan would increase the amount the state would pay for the principal and interest on its general obligation bond debt by nearly $122 million over the next two years, to more than $1.3 billion. Walz’s proposal would result in an $74 million increase, according to Minnesota Management and Budget.
The budget office has assured legislators the state would be able to pay off the amount proposed in a timely manner, House Capital Investment Division Chairwoman Mary Murphy said. She debuted the bill this week, and the division will vote on it Thursday.
The bill reflects the values of people across the state, said Murphy, D-Hermantown, adding that it would leverage low interest rates, create jobs and help the state’s economy. She said her proposal will help the state catch up on maintenance that has long been underfunded.
Finding the compromise
The Legislature traditionally assembles a big bonding bill in even-numbered years. In odd years, lawmakers focus on the budget and tend to pass a much smaller borrowing measure, around $265 million.
Urdahl prefers a small bill this year, and he would like to focus on wastewater projects, roads and bridges, and preserving college and university assets. He said the work between legislators and the governor to land on the size and contents of the bill might not happen until late in the session, which wraps up May 20.
Management and Budget Assistant Commissioner Britta Reitan urged lawmakers at a House Capital Investment Division meeting Tuesday to buck tradition and opt for a bigger bill this year.
“There are many reasons that passing a bonding bill this year is so critical, because these projects just can’t wait,” she said.
Between the state’s assets, the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State system, there are about 85 million square feet of public infrastructure to preserve and maintain, she said. Meanwhile, Reitan said, communities across the state have identified $5 billion in wastewater and sewer projects that need to be done over the next 20 years.
She also urged lawmakers to take advantage of low interest rates and the state’s high AAA bond rating. “Taking care of what we have is fiscally responsible,” she said.
Senjem said he has heard the low-interest-rate argument for a long time, and it doesn’t sway him. He said the real crux of the debate is finding something “passable.”
“You need bipartisan support on these things. So you have to find that narrow little gap; it’s not too big for one group and it’s not too small for another,” he said. “That’s what really dictates how you get a bonding bill done.”
For the throng of mayors, university officials and other community leaders who have repeatedly pleaded with state leaders for money, it is a process they are watching closely.
Megan Gunnar, director of the U’s Institute of Child Development, is part of that group. Walz and House Democrats want to dedicate $28 million to the child development building renovation, but she is worried about the Republican-controlled Senate. She said the U has been aiming to renovate the building for 20 years.
“We are way past due,” Gunnar said. “We are doing 21st-century science under really impossible circumstances.”