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With bonding bill still out of reach, Democrats pivot to 2020 election

Democrats said they would keep working on a local projects bill but needed to flip the Senate to accomplish more.

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Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, on Monday, August 3, 2020, spoke with reporters about DFL lawmakers' policy priorities and ongoing bonding bill negotiations. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — A push to pass a $1.8 billion public projects and jobs plan continues to be developed behind the scenes at the Capitol but likely won't come up for consideration until September, a key legislative leader said Monday, Aug. 3.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said legislative leaders are set to continue work on the proposal that she said could provide a critical boost after the COVID-19 pandemic and state efforts to curb it have ravaged the state economy.

Attempts to pass the bill during the regular session and two special legislative sessions this summer have failed, drawing condemnation from local governments, trades groups and labor unions.

While lawmakers likely will return for another special session this month, they can't take up spending or borrowing as the state sells bonds for projects that had already been approved. And that means September would become the new deadline to approve the slate of projects, Hortman said, or the bill could be off the table for 2020.

“That’s really the do-or-die moment on the bonding bill is late September,” Hortman said, noting House Republicans would have to drop their condition that the governor drop the state's peacetime emergency to deal with COVID-19 before they would vote for the jobs and projects bill. " We will be going to the mat in September to get that bill signed."

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With that likely a month or more away, Democrats on Monday sought to pivot their focus to the 2020 General Election and offered voters their list of priorities if the divided Legislature broke to Democratic control.

They said they could only advance efforts to offer a MinnesotaCare buy-in option, boosting funding to public schools, offering paid sick and safe time to all workers and fighting climate change if the DFL picked up control in both chambers. Legislative leaders said they'd been hampered in passing their priorities by Republicans who hold a majority in the Minnesota Senate.

“We really need to flip the Senate to realize a bold progressive vision for Minnesota,” Hortman said.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said the divided statehouse has proved inefficient in passing COVID-19 response legislation and proposals aimed at rebuilding and reinvigorating the state's economy.

“To really address the challenges facing our state and to address the hopes and dreams and needs of Minnesotans, we need a more active state government and we believe we have the agenda to do it,” he said.

Democrats said they feel confident that their plans to expand access to affordable health care, further rewrite police accountability laws following the killing of George Floyd and tighten constraints on buying firearms will help them pick up voters in the Twin Cities suburbs, as well as in Bemidji, Rochester and St. Cloud.

But Republican lawmakers labeled the DFL policy priorities a "radical vision" for Minnesota and said voters could expect a different slate of proposals from the GOP.

"Luckily Minnesotans will have a better choice this November," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a news release. "Republicans will set priorities for spending so the economy can recover, strengthen law enforcement to keep communities safe and make sure our students don’t fall further behind in school this fall.”

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Hortman and other DFL leaders said they expected the election would be a referendum on the president, who is expected to be at the top of the ticket as he seeks reelection. But they said voters, too, will have to select candidates based on who they think can best address the COVID-19 pandemic and prioritize recovery that could follow.

“I think that there’s no doubt that it’s a referendum on Donald Trump," Hortman said, "but nobody who cares about a bold progressive vision for Minnesota’s future should be at all complacent about this election."

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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