Minnesota House GOP blocks passage of $2 billion bonding bill

The Minnesota State Capitol from a distance.
Legislators arrive at the Minnesota Capitol before the House comes into session on March 26.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: May 17, 10:27 a.m.

Republicans in the Minnesota House followed through on their threat to block a bonding bill Saturday when the $2 billion measure was put to a vote.

The House vote was 75 to 58 in favor — but that was short of the three-fifths supermajority needed for passage.

Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt had previously said there wouldn’t be GOP support unless Democratic Gov. Tim Walz ended the peacetime emergency he declared to fight COVID-19. Daudt’s complaint now is the size of the bill.

“Bringing a bill to the floor that is between two and three times the biennial average and puts Minnesotans on the hook for debt service we cannot afford is a disservice to Minnesotans," he said.

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Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, in a statement ahead of the vote, said “updating our aging infrastructure will help our people, communities and businesses make it through the COVID-19 crisis and provide jobs with wages and benefits that can support a family. Minnesota needs these investments now more than ever.”

DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said the state needs the projects and the jobs.

“The construction industry is strong right now. But the pipeline in drying up. In six to 12 months from now, we will have a real shortage of construction jobs," he said.

The session is in its closing days; the governor and legislative leaders could still reach a deal on a slimmed-down bill before time runs out Sunday night. But passage of a bonding bill might have to wait for a special session next month.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans unveiled their own $998 million bonding proposal. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka called it a “responsible, generous and targeted bill.”

Republican Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester, the chair of the capital investment committee, said the bill emphasizes transportation and wastewater infrastructure projects.

“It’s a matter of trying to weigh priorities and trying to take priorities on that we felt were the kind of priorities that would bring forth, if you will, job intensity. A lot of moving dirt, a lot of pouring concrete, a lot of setting up drywall and a lot of putting in utilities," he said.

DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul criticized the plan for leaving out many key projects. She said the bill shortchanges higher education and slights the metro area.

“This bill does not represent One Minnesota. This is probably the most political Senate bill that I’ve ever seen in my 30-plus years I’ve been in the Legislature, and I’m deeply, deeply, deeply disappointed," she said.

A full Senate vote is expected Sunday.

Senate rejects pay raise for state workers

State employees would lose a scheduled pay raise under a bill passed late Saturday night in the Minnesota Senate, on a 34-33 vote.

Senate Republicans pushed to stop the 2.5 percent salary increase — scheduled for July 1 — in the closing hours of the legislative session rather than ratify the previously negotiated two-year contracts.

The bill would restore the raise if the economy rebounds. The contracts were negotiated long before the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn, and Rep. Senator Mark Koran of North Branch said the contracts are no longer sustainable.

“With a $2.5 million deficit and more than 600,000 Minnesotans on unemployment, this is not the time to raise the pay of the state employees," he said. "Everyone needs to tighten their belt and work together. The contracts were negotiated in good faith and under completely different circumstances. We’ve asked the governor to bring the contracts back to the negotiating table and do the right thing."

The House had already ratified the contracts; time runs out on the contract debate on Monday, when the legislative session ends.

If not resolved, the contracts for 50,000 state workers would revert to the prior two-year agreement. DFL Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent argued that the Legislature cannot change the terms of those agreements.

“We are not parties to this negotiation. You cannot force two unwilling parties in a contract that they don’t agree to. And that’s what we would be doing if we would proceed with this bill," she said.

Bills signed into law

Walz on Saturday signed 11 bills into law, including measures to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21 and to make Minnesota the first state to prohibit the use of the toxic and long-lasting chemical trichloroethylene, or TCE.

“At the end of the day, our job is to keep Minnesotans safe,” Walz said in a statement. “These strong bipartisan measures will improve public health and reduce preventable health risks. Raising the age to buy tobacco to 21 will help stop addiction before it starts and save young lives.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.