ST. PAUL — With just days left in Minnesota's 2020 legislative session, the highly anticipated bonding package has become a bargaining chip for legislators battling over the state's coronavirus response.
Democratic Gov. Tim Walz has drawn ire from legislative Republicans for utilizing executive emergency powers to respond to the pandemic, with Republican leaders calling his executive orders overly broad and unilateral. They say the Legislature should have more voting power, and accuse Walz of hammering down too hard on stay at home measures and nonessential business closures.
On May 2, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, vowed to block any bonding bill from House passage — a three-fifths majority vote is required — so long as Walz maintains his peacetime emergency powers.
Daudt said the executive power at the start of the pandemic, "but after two months of unilateral power and decision making it's time for him to work with us on decisions and actions regarding the future of the state."
Before it ultimately passed the House Ways and Means Committee by a 17-10 vote on Tuesday, May 12, debate on the $2.03 billion package grew heated. Rep. Mary Murphy, D-Hermantown, said despite her colleagues assuming "custody" of the bill, "We cannot stop our work. The people of Minnesota are expecting a bonding bill."
Prior Lake Republican Rep. Tony Albright argued in the Tuesday hearing that whether to pass the bill amid the pandemic was an argument of priorities. Before taking on a multibillion dollar loan obligation, he said, Minnesotans need to see "a good faith effort between the governor and the legislative body to make sure that we’re charting a path forward to reopen Minnesota."
"You need to first eat the vegetables and your meat and potatoes off the plate before you get to dessert," he said. "I would strongly argue that we need to be eating what’s on our plate first in terms of making sure that we open up Minnesota before we get to dessert (a bonding bill)."
Minneapolis Democrat Rep. Jim Davnie quickly retorted that a bonding bill "isn't dessert."
"For an awful lot of Minnesotans in every community across the state, the bonding bill is how they pay for the meat and the vegetables and the bread and the milk," he said.
This year's bonding package has been a legislative priority for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities from the start of legislative session, weeks before any Minnesotans were confirmed to have contracted coronavirus. Now, with local economies potentially taking hits from lower property and sales tax collections, and Minnesotans hungry for economic stimulus, coalition Executive Director Bradley Peterson said a robust bonding bill is more important than ever.
"Certainly the case is even stronger now with the pandemic given fact that once the state reopens, we are going to need some economic stimulus," Peterson told Forum News Service on Tuesday. "A bonding bill is one of the few levers that the state can really pull in terms of providing a lot of economic stimulus in addition to getting done all these necessary projects around the state."
Those projects include roads, bridges and water infrastructure improvements, as well as building maintenance, grants for local government projects, child care and more.
Peterson said a bonding bill grants legislators "leverage," but "the fact remains these projects need to get started." The longer legislators stall, "the more toxic sometimes the politics can become," he said.
That said, Peterson said there's "a lot of hurt out across the state and there’s a lot of anxiety across the state" thanks to coronavirus and its consequential hits on Minnesotans' lives and the state economy. He called upon lawmakers to help ease those worries and encouraged them to move quickly to safely reopen, but "regardless of where that discussion is, we still think it’s imperative that a bonding bill go forward."
"There's a lot of hurt out across the state and there’s a lot of anxiety across the state that needs to be addressed in multiple ways on multiple fronts," Peterson said. "Certainly one thing the state can do is get a bonding bill moving."