by CHRIS ROGERS
With only two weeks to go in the Minnesota Legislature's 2016 session, the Republican-led House and the majority-DFL Senate are a long way from reaching an agreement on some of the session's biggest ticket items: borrowing, road funding, and tax cuts. Last week, Senate leaders unveiled their bonding proposal, Senate Republicans answered with a compromise bill, and both failed to pass. A variety of local projects are dependent on the bonding bill, including Winona State University's (WSU) Education Village project, riverfront park projects in Wabasha and Red Wing, a railroad quiet zone in Goodview and Minnesota City, upgrades to Whitewater State Park and Crystal Spring Fish Hatchery, and a dam repair in Lanesboro. Representative Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona) said the session could end without any compromises on bonding, road funding, or tax cuts. Senator Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) was optimistic.
The votes Miller and Senator Matt Schmit (DFL-Red Wing) took Thursday illustrate the divide. Miller voted with his party for a smaller bonding bill, and Schmit voted with his for a larger one.
Throughout this election year, the two parties have been arm-wrestling over how to provide lasting funding for roads and bridges — Democrats want to raise the gas tax, Republicans want to use existing funds including, possibly, a big share of bonding funds. Republicans have been fighting for larger tax cuts, as well. Late last month, Republican leaders in the House said the fate of the bonding bill was tied to what sort of compromise the parties could reach on transportation funding and tax cuts, according to the House's media service. Miller echoed that message in an interview Friday, saying that how much the legislature agrees to spend on transportation influences how much it can spend on tax cuts and how much transportation funding needs to be included in the bonding bill. "All three of them are contingent on one another," he said. So far, the two parties are hundreds of millions of dollars apart on all three issues.
Early this spring, Governor Mark Dayton proposed a $1.4 billion bonding bill, including projects across the state. On Wednesday, the DFL-dominated Senate bonding committee answered with a $1.8 billion proposal, including a $365.6 million chunk for transportation. The proposal would have funded WSU's $25.3 million Education Village project; $8 million in riverfront park improvements in Wabasha, Red Wing, and Hastings; $301,000 in new railroad crossing gates and medians in order to rid Goodview and Minnesota City of train horns; funding for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to improve Whitewater State Park and Crystal Spring Fish Hatchery; and $2.8 million in funding toward a $3.6 million Lanesboro dam project. The DFL proposal made railroad safety a priority, with around $77 million in railroad safety projects in other parts of the state. Minnesota zoos would have faired well under the DFL proposal, too, with $38 million in funding.
The House's Republican-dominated bonding committee still has not released a bonding proposal.
House leaders said their goal is to limit the bonding bill to a total of $600 million, but they have not spelled out what projects they would fund.
The full Senate met Thursday to vote on the Senate bonding committee's $1.8 billion proposal. Senator David Senjem (R-Rochester) passed out copies of a $800 million counterproposal during the meeting. Senjem's proposal included funding for WSU's Education Village, full funding for the Lanesboro dam, and for Whitewater State Park and Crystal Spring Fish Hatchery, but not for the Goodview railroad quiet zone, riverfront parks in Wabasha and Red Wing, a railroad overpass for the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant near Red Wing, and a host of other projects around the state. Senjem said his smaller proposal was a workable compromise that stood a chance of being passed in the House. Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) backed him up. He said citizens have been pleading with legislators, "'Can't you get along? Can't you find some common ground?' Well if you look at the numbers we're right in between the $1.4 billion and the $600 million. To me, that's getting along." He added, "This is the Republicans stepping up, not stepping in front, but stepping up and compromising and getting it done."
Minneapolis DFL Senator Scott Dibble said it was hard to properly evaluate Senjem's proposal when he was seeing it for the first time on the Senate floor. Rural DFL Senator Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook) criticized House Republicans for never specifying what projects they would fund and not fund with a $600 million bonding bill. "The one thing about legislation is, it's important what's in it," Skoe said. After looking through Senjem's proposal, Dibble criticized it for skimping on Metro-area transit projects supported by suburban Republicans, and hinted that Senjem might not get the votes he needed to pass the amendment because of it. Dibble was right. Senjem's amendment failed 18-47, with Miller voting for it and Schmit voting against it. Skoe also expressed concerns about flood protection projects that were cut in Senjem's proposal.
However, the $1.8 billion DFL proposal did not fair any better. It fell one vote short of passing, with Miller voting against it and Schmit voting for it.
The Senate DFL proposal was too expensive and there was too much money for ice arenas and wellness centers, plus it lacked full funding for the Lanesboro Dam, Miller said, when asked about his vote. On the other hand, House Republicans' $600 million goal is too small, he continued. In these last two weeks, it is time for legislators to stop playing games and blaming each other and start getting their work done, Miller said. "I think the Senate Republicans' proposal, the compromise proposal, will help set the stage as we go into the end of session here," he added.
Schmit explained that he voted against Senjem's proposal because it cut out nearly all of the projects in his district, as well as other important projects around the state. When asked about the size of Senjem's proposal and his and Miller's statements that it was a good compromise, Schmit responded, "That compromise should be reached between the Senate, the governor and the House." If the Senate were to pass an $800 million bill, the House would negotiate the final bill down even further, he said. "As a body we need to put together a proposal that is commensurate with our needs so we can negotiate with the House," Schmit added.
Miller was optimistic that the legislature could strike deals on bonding, transportation, and tax cuts in the next two weeks. "I think it would be extremely unlikely and I would be very disappointed if we don't get these three priorities down by May 23," he stated.
On the House side, Pelowski was not so optimistic. He is a minority member on the House's bonding committee, and he said the two bodies may not be able to agree before the session ends. "I think that's a distinct possibility," he stated. "We don't technically need any of these bills; you're not looking at a government shutdown … It's not like last year where we had to pass bills to keep elements of government working," he added. Pelowski said he wishes the legislature would pass a bonding bill and compromise on transportation and tax cuts, but the two parties' proposals are just so far apart, that reaching an agreement before May 23 would be a challenge. "Right now anything is possible, but caution is the guideline. These are huge differences," he said.