Minnesota House passes $1.9 billion construction package, but Senate passage in doubt

The Minnesota House overwhelmingly passed a $1.9 billion package of construction projects, tax breaks and spending after a months-long stalemate, but comments from a top Senate Republican threw the bill's future into doubt.

The bill passed the House 100-34, with 25 Republicans joining all Democrats voting yes. Because the bill increases state borrowing, it needed to clear a 60 percent threshold, and GOP members had withheld their votes for months as they unsuccessfully tried to get Gov. Tim Walz to give up his coronavirus emergency powers.

 "We’re out of time. It’s day three of the special session. It’s time to pass the bill," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, told reporters at a Wednesday morning news conference before a nearly 10-hour House session. 

After the House passed the bill, it adjourned. That means the Senate has no choice to amend the package. Instead, it must pass it as written -- or get nothing.

But as the House neared a vote, state Sen. Michelle Benson, a deputy GOP leader, cast doubt on whether the Senate would pass the bill when it gavels in at 11 a.m. Thursday.

"The House should not adjourn Sine Die. There were changes made without agreed upon language," Benson, R-Ham Lake, said in a tweet. "The Senate deserves a chance to voice our concerns. This is too important for a take-it-or-leave-it negotiating tactic."

Senate Republicans have not publicly committed to passing the bill, even though Hortman said it was negotiated this weekend between Senate GOP and House DFL leaders with only minor changes made since then.
The bill needed to start in the House because it contains borrowing and tax changes. House Democrats had to keep their entire caucus in line, plus secure votes from six Republican lawmakers. 
For months, GOP House members had held out, demanding Gov. Walz give up his emergency powers. Walz has not. Now, with Election Day fast approaching, the pressure mounts on Republicans to show they've been able to win construction projects for their districts.

Some Republicans argued that the bill includes too much new spending while the state faces a $2.4 billion projected budget deficit.

"To my DFL colleagues, wowee! You guys like to spend money," state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington said this week. "I’ve seen a lot of stuff from you guys, but you really enjoy spending money."
The bill includes $1.37 billion in borrowing for public works projects around the state, including a new Kellogg Avenue bridge in St. Paul to replace a deteriorating span and a road-raising project in Henderson to mitigate frequent flooding.
It also allows businesses to get a tax break immediately on new equipment purchases. 
The measure includes $7.5 million that will keep two state prisons in Togo and Willow River open. Without an infusion of new cash, the Department of Corrections planned to close the facilities to plug a budget hole.
The bill also has $12.9 million to reimburse the Minnesota State Patrol, Department of Natural Resources, and Department of Transportation for their costs of responding to the springtime rioting in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday he was hopeful that the stalemate would end.

"If the folks in the House and (GOP) Leader (Kurt) Daudt want to pass this, they can," Walz told reporters on a conference call. "Because the votes are there in the Senate."

During the nine-hour floor debate, Republicans argued against one Minneapolis project, $12.5 million for a performance venue at the planned Upper Harbor Terminal project, saying it was unsafe for their constituents to attend an event there.

"My constituents have a right to know that when they attend an event at this venue that they will be safe," said state Rep. Anne Neu, R-North Branch. 

Democrats said it amounted to fearmongering to scare voters.

"Minnesota, I’d remind you that we’re 3 weeks out from an election. And I’d remind you that fear is a common tool to try to drive votes," said state Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis.