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Heftier bonding bill could be in store after Minnesota lawmakers miss window in 2019

From left, state Sen. Roger Chamberlain, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, Rep. Anne Neu and Rep. Rick Hansen addressed dozens of agriculture and food systems industry officials at the AgriGrowth Council lunch gathering near the Capitol on Tuesday, June 4, 2019.

ST. PAUL — After lawmakers came out of an all-night legislative special session last month without a plan to fund key infrastructure projects, some said the state should be ready to greenlight more than $1 billion in proposals in 2020.

A pair of Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday, June 4, put forth the pitch to increase the state's bonding bill in 2020 to offset the impact of delaying work on projects. They, along with a pair of Republican lawmakers, addressed dozens of agriculture and food systems industry officials at the AgriGrowth Council lunch gathering near the Capitol.

In the final hours of a 21-hour special session last month, Minnesota House Democrats held out hope that a $440 million bonding package could pass. But as the minutes ticked down to the end of the session, no bill came to either the House or Senate floor.

As part of an end-of-session agreement made between House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Gov. Tim Walz, the general obligation bonds were to be sold to fund projects around the state.

But that proposal couldn't find the support among House Republicans to get a green light this year. Senate Republicans said they were ready to pass the proposal.

"This legislative session, it was only a political unwillingness to act that stopped it from happening," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said. "There is no reason why a significant investment in state infrastructure won't be made next year except a political willingness to do it."

Local government leaders and advocates for Greater Minnesota cities said they were disappointed to see the Legislature failed to pass a bonding proposal for wastewater infrastructure, local road and bridge repairs and economic development needs.

House Assistant Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu, R-North Branch, said members of her caucus were focused on completing a two-year budget bill during the legislative session and weren't in on the agreement between Hortman, Gazelka and Walz.

"We never felt a real compelling reason to do a significant bonding bill this session," Neu said. Larger bonding bills are typically completed in non-budget years, though smaller ones have passed along with budget proposals in recent years.

But heading into 2020, a bonding year at the Legislature, Neu said Republicans would be open to a "good responsible bonding bill."

The price tag on such a .proposal could drive heated debate in the divided Legislature. Democrats said to meet the critical need for some of the most urgent projects, the state would need to sell more bonds than in recent years.

"Mentally, the Legislature has been stuck for almost 20 years at a $1 billion bonding bill," Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said. "I'm hopeful that we move into the 21st century and say that if the needs are there and that they're real needs, that we need to actually fund them."

A key Senate Republican pushed back on the financial responsibility of selling in excess of $1 billion in bonds given the state's current economic climate.

"We have to be really concerned about two things: the stability of our revenue system and where are we going to get that revenue from," Senate Tax Committee Chair Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said. "We either need to grow the labor force or increase productivity to grow the economy."

With a tightening labor force in the state, that could be a tough prospect, he said.

The panel also said legislative leaders this year had good intentions on bringing transparency to the process of writing a $48 billion spending bill, but they still have work to do.

"There has to be a balance. You have to be able to negotiate, have some leverage, some ability to hold things close to the vest in negotiations," Chamberlain said. "Anybody who thinks we're going to come through these things and just all be singing kumbaya and dancing in the street is living in a fantasy land and ought to go get medicated because it never will be that way."

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