Walz pitches $3.3 billion public works plan
Updated 5:20 p.m.
A massive public works package that would build and fix up ice arenas, water plants, fire stations, bridges and more will test the limits of DFL power at Minnesota’s Capitol.
Gov. Tim Walz is asking the Legislature to approve $3.3 billion worth of construction projects, funded by a mix of borrowing through the sale of state bonds and cash from Minnesota’s massive budget surplus. To get anything near what he proposed, Walz would need bipartisan support.
Walz announced the plan Thursday at the Saint Paul Regional Water Services plant, where a $250 million renovation is underway with some state financing.
As he moved around in a bright yellow safety vest and blue helmet, Walz marveled at the steps taken at the plant to ensure what comes from the home tap is clear and clean. He crossed a catwalk to peer down on a 20-foot deep basin that clarifies millions of gallons a day. It dates to the 1930s.
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“The previous generations paid their taxes, built this so we could benefit,” Walz said. “We’re talking about building for future generations now.”
Walz says there are many more projects like the St. Paul waterworks that need state help to proceed.
That’s the thought behind his capital improvement package, also known as a bonding bill.
“Making sure that Minnesotans have the things they need,” the DFL governor said. “Talking here about clean water, safe roads, good bridges, all of the things that make life better, make life safer and make our economy work.”
There would be $11 million for a new public safety operations center plus, more than $53 million for Bureau of Criminal Apprehension buildings and millions more for local law enforcement centers.
There’s $20 million for safer rail crossings, more than $35 million for prison additions and $60 million to rehabilitate public housing.
There’s $583 million to help state colleges with campus upgrades and repairs.
Cities would get a hand with sports facilities and community centers, arts and opera houses, parks and trails improvements and emergency operations outposts. The Minnesota Zoo would get $10 million to renovate its animal hospital while the Como Zoo would land about $14 million toward its exhibits.
There is $24 million to replace wetlands and $252 million that would go toward local roads and bridges.
One of the largest projects is $78 million to redo a century-old veteran’s home in disrepair.
“If I have to make my one personal plug, it's for the Hastings veterans home,” Walz said.
For trade unions, the bonding bill is a security blanket of sorts that future work will be there.
“We are concerned because there are some people that just don't want to make this a high priority,” said Dan Olson, the business manager of a laborers union in Duluth. “But I can share with you that we are the people that build the roads in these infrastructure packages. We are the people that build these water treatment plants. We are the people that are building and taking apart lead lines.”
For any of it to happen, Walz needs to win over lawmakers. Fellow DFLers who lead the House and Senate say the governor set the right tone..
“Communities and institutions across Minnesota are in desperate need of robust capital investment — a need that only grows more expensive the longer these projects and crucial pieces of infrastructure go unaddressed,” said House Capital Investment Committee Chair Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis.
But this is one of the more intriguing propositions in the Legislature because general obligation debt requires three-fifths majorities to pass — well more than the party has on its own.
Lawmakers failed to finish a bonding bill last year when there was general agreement around working toward a $1.4 billion package.
As for this one?
“It’s going to be tough,” said Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point. “That’s a lot of money. That’s a big bonding bill.”
Housley said there are behind the scenes talks about how much DFLers and Republicans can jointly bite off. She said paying for some projects in cash will help, but she’s also got an eye on the mix of proposals.
“Roads and bridges and infrastructure across the state — we’ve got a ton of work that needs to be done,” Housley said. “And that’s where I think that the bonding money should be going to.”
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said there is a decent chance the Legislature approves an early bonding bill and leaves additional discussions for later. He said negotiators are “fairly close to being able to come up with a finished product” around reprising a list of projects that almost won approval last year. That was a roughly $1.4 bill, but some costs have risen.
“By not doing a bill – and we didn't do one last biennium – we're not saving money. That money is going to be spent,” Urdahl said. “If we don't do it in a traditional bonding way then I think the Democrats are just going to spend it on cash for bonding or for some other purposes.”
Urdahl said the price tag on the new proposal from Walz is too high and would be unlikely to win over at least 11 House Republicans needed to pass it.
There is a slight escape hatch for Walz and his allies: Of the total package, about $1.4 billion is in the form of cash from the surplus and bonds that take only a simple majority. Those aren’t set in stone.
Walz said he’s striving for Republican votes toward a construction package but wants at least something to pass.
“At this point in time, our goal is to get those votes that we need, get that bipartisan vote, get those folks on board, make sure everybody's voices are heard and go with that,” Walz said. “But I also said that we certainly reserve the right to get these projects done one way or another.”