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Ramstad: Minnesota should be impolite, call a special session and pass a bonding bill

In World
June 08, 2024

It’s been three weeks since the chaotic end of the 2024 legislative session, which lawmakers finished without doing the one thing Minnesotans expect them to do in an even-numbered year — take care of the state’s capital-spending needs.

Last year, with the state swimming in a $17 billion surplus of tax revenue, lawmakers jacked up the two-year budget by 37%, the most since the mid-1970s. This year, they couldn’t agree on the bond issuance that’s routinely done to pay for maintaining state facilities and building new ones.

They turned Minnesota into that family up the street that’s got a pontoon boat and spends Christmas overseas, but won’t weed the lawn or fix the screen on the porch.

Gov. Tim Walz indicated his disappointment in lawmakers’ failure to pass a bonding bill, but he won’t call a special session to force them to do it, his spokeswoman told me last week. They had plenty of time during the session, Walz has said.

True, though two wrongs don’t make a right. Legislators’ inaction and Walz’s decision to let it go are not good for the Minnesota economy nor for the state agencies and towns that manage public assets, from water systems to bridges and buildings.

My colleague Lori Sturdevant dove into the political reasons and implications of what she called the “no-bonding bummer” just after the session closed. Last week, one of the state’s veteran lobbyists, Jim Erickson, made the case in the opinion pages that Walz and lawmakers still had time to fix their mistake.

“This enormous lost opportunity is the worst news from the recent session,” Erickson wrote. He politely praised the legislators who did the hard work of vetting projects, only to see it go for naught.

The less-polite assessment is leaders in St. Paul are making a hash of Minnesotans’ money and collective properties. They undertook the biggest expansion to state government most living Minnesotans have ever seen. Then they ignored the state’s infrastructure, the most basic thing they’re supposed to do.

“You can have any of a wide range of political opinions and still recognize there are legitimate things the state needs to financially take care of,” Craig Johnson, a lobbyist at the League of Minnesota Cities, said. “That didn’t get done this year.”

To be fair, last year’s spending spree did include some on infrastructure, chiefly to take advantage of matching federal funds that were available. I should also note the Legislature’s inaction on bonds won’t affect the state’s job market and economy this year. Most construction and other projects now underway were paid for with bonds issued previously.

“We have funding for loans and grants for projects that were on track for this summer,” said Jeff Freeman, executive director at the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority, the state agency that oversees municipal financing. “A lot of the projects that were looking ahead to construction next year will be on hold. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Of course, this has happened in the past, including in 2022. When it does, all the work done by municipal and county leaders to prepare for projects — studying alternatives, getting feedback from residents, estimating costs — gets thrown up in the air.

Hardest hit are the small communities who have few taxpayers and, without help from the state’s ability to issue bonds, little opportunity to pay for things that break.

The water tower in Kennedy, Minn., froze in 2017, leaving it inoperable and irreparable. The community of 168 people is supplied with water from a rural system with 18 miles of pipeline. With no place to store water, however, its volunteer fire crew doesn’t have the ability to fight a house fire. They’ve got a 5,000-gallon tanker truck, enough water for about 10 minutes of fire suppression.

After several years of working with consultants and engineers, city leaders in Kennedy decided to build some underground water storage tanks that would hold more water and be less costly than a new tower. The project would cost about $2.4 million.

In late April, City Clerk Melissa Woinarowicz made the long drive to St. Paul for a five-minute appearance before the House Capital Investment Committee to ask for $734,000, the last of the money the town needed for the work. Three weeks ago, she watched public TV all weekend waiting for legislators to take up the bonding bill.

“I was very, very sad on Sunday to see that the bonding bill did not get brought up,” she told me last week.

She’s unsure of the town’s next steps. Kennedy residents pay an average of $63 a month for water. Putting the cost of the storage tank on them would raise their monthly bills by $30 to $40, Woinarowicz said.

“We want to keep Kennedy alive. It’s a great little town. If we continue to raise the cost of living, how do people stay?” she said.

I look at what happened with the bonding bill and see it as another sign of misplaced economic priorities at the Legislature. The people of Kennedy look at it and must hope nothing catches on fire.

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