I’m holding my applause, legislators.
You may think you deserve kudos for the police reform bill you sent to Gov. Tim Walz in the middle of the night last Tuesday. OK, here’s a nod. I’d rank the bill as slightly-better-than-minimally acceptable for a state that lately showed the world police practices that are grossly at odds with its advertised values.
But your failure to pass a $1.8 billion capital investment bill — aka the bonding bill — amounts to legislative malfeasance.
That stern verdict didn’t originate with me. It’s the word Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht used when I caught up with her the day after special session II ended, to inquire about her city’s water treatment project that would have been granted a $10.2 million green light had the bonding bill passed.
“This is a critical project,” Albrecht said, made urgent by firefighting chemical contamination of the city’s wells. It can’t wait, not in a regional center that takes seriously both public health and its position near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. “We don’t want to send our contamination to St. Cloud and beyond,” she said.
But going forward without state assistance would mean a 40% increase in the city’s utility bills, Albrecht said. That would be keenly felt in a city whose median household income is a skimpy $34,000 a year.
“Clean drinking water is a shared Minnesota value,” Albrecht said. “It seems unfair to us that our city’s utility ratepayers should have to foot that bill alone. This is exactly what state bonding dollars should be used for.”
Albrecht’s judgment might be dismissed as partisan. She is a DFL candidate for the Minnesota Senate this year. But she’s not the only mayor who was unhappy last week. Another for-instance: Sean Dowse of Red Wing, whose Sturgeon Lake Road rail-grade separation project was in the stalled bill for $10 million.
“This is one of the most dangerous crossings in the state,” Dowse said. The road serves 12,500 cars per day and is bisected by trains 40 times per day, he explained. “That’s 40 chances each day that emergency personnel will be delayed on that road,” which serves an Xcel nuclear power plant and the Prairie Island Indian Community, with its resort and casino.
Dowse stopped short of accusing one party or caucus of malfeasance. But after seeking state funding since he became mayor in 2017, his patience has clearly worn thin. “The governor and Legislature need to resolve their differences to get this done,” he said, repeating the line a few times slowly, with emphasis.
I hear your plea, Mr. Mayor. But as long as Minnesota voters continue to put control of state government into both parties’ hands — as they have for 28 of the past 30 years — please don’t hold your breath until governors and legislators resolve their differences.
Rather, let’s ask why something as fundamental to this state’s well-being as public infrastructure — not to mention the jobs that public projects generate — should be allowed to be ensnared in differences that have little to do with bonding. This year, the holdup has involved House Republican opposition to Walz’s exercise of emergency power concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2016, it was a fight over transit — a factor again this time, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, revealed last week. Don’t get me started on what happened in 2002, 2004 and 2007.
The reasons for hangups and hiccups varied from year to year. But each time, bonding bills were put in harm’s way by the Legislature’s pattern of treating them as the “dessert” course, to be served at the end of the two-year lawmaking cycle. The temptation to use bonding bills as partisan crowbars with which to pry election-year concessions from the opposition is evidently too strong for today’s politicians to resist.
The 2020 Legislature is expected to get another shot at passing a bonding bill next month in special session III, which will be required for the continuation of Walz’s pandemic emergency powers. Maybe by then, mayors and other seekers of better infrastructure will have shamed legislators into action.
Even if they do, I won’t be applauding. This has been a terrible time for the Legislature to treat a bonding bill as anything other than the meat-and-potatoes of governance. This year of all years, Minnesotans deserved to see state government behave as a steadying force, doing all it can to position Minnesota for a post-pandemic rebound.
Next year, legislators ought to rethink the way they handle the authorization of long-term debt. To be sure, the state Constitution will still require that bonding bills achieve a 60% supermajority to become law. Most years, bonding bills still will be the product of bipartisan deal making.
But legislators could employ any number of tricks of the lawmaking trade to give such bills more protection from 11th-hour partisan crossfire. They could alter the bills’ timing. They could split them into two or more pieces. One possibility: separate the funding of state-owned facilities from that of local and regional ones.
They could build need-based formulae into the choice of projects, as they do to fund aid to schools and cities. They could establish a standing commission on capital investment, as they do to oversee public pensions. They could more rigorously peg the bills’ size to state’s debt guidelines rather than political whim. They could include more realistic debt service amounts in the twice-yearly state budget forecasts.
They could put control over the bills more firmly in the hands of the capital investment committees, not caucus leaders, and conduct all committee business in public, not in the closed-door confabs that have become far too often the norm.
Moves like these would signal to Minnesotans that, like most of us, legislators have been chastened by this devastating year. Much that needs mending and amending in this state’s shared life has been laid bare by the scourges of COVID-19 and racial injustice. Legislators would do well to declare that the political gamesmanship of the past two decades is now obsolete, and to vow to get serious about governance.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.