REGIONAL— Lawmakers from northern Minnesota are looking ahead to a possible special session by mid-June in hopes of completing a laundry list of bills and initiatives left undone when the …
REGIONAL— Lawmakers from northern Minnesota are looking ahead to a possible special session by mid-June in hopes of completing a laundry list of bills and initiatives left undone when the Legislature adjourned last Sunday.
Among the major items left unfinished are a bonding bill and a new tax bill, and that’s where Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, sees potential for agreement in a special session. “If there’s going to be a deal it will be between taxes and bonding,” he said.
Tens of millions of dollars in projects slated for the North Country hang on that outcome, notes Ecklund. “We need a bonding bill,” he said. “There are a lot of good projects for District 3A in that bill.”
Indeed, had the Legislature backed Gov. Walz’s $2.6 billion proposal, nearly $29 million would have reached the area for the following:
• $5.8 million for campground development at Lake Vermilion Soudan Underground Mine State Park.
• $2.8 million for the Ely Regional Trailhead Project visitors center serving the Taconite Trail, the Mesabi Trail, and the Prospector Loop ATV Trail.
• $3.0 million for the city of Tower’s water treatment facility.
• $6.6 million for the planned Crane Lake Voyageurs National Park visitor center, campground, boat ramp, and access road.
• $1 million for expansion of the Voyageur Country ATV Trail in northern St. Louis County.
• $2.6 million for a Vermilion Community College classroom design and building project.
While Ecklund remains optimistic that lawmakers will agree to a bonding bill, Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, was less sanguine. He said he spent 90 minutes last Saturday in House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt’s office in an effort to find a solution after Daudt promised a group of GOP convention delegates on May 2 that he would block any bonding bill until Gov. Tim Walz ended the peacetime emergency order he issued back in March as the COVID-19 pandemic reached Minnesota.
Bakk said it would be foolish for the governor to rescind the order since doing so would automatically rescind executive orders that Walz has issued since declaring the emergency and limit his ability to respond to the pandemic over the summer.
Bakk said Daudt realized after his comments to delegates at the Second District GOP convention that he had “boxed himself in,” but couldn’t find a face-saving way that would allow him to let a bonding bill go forward. With unemployment high and interest rates at near record lows, both DFL and GOP leaders had acknowledged the value of a bonding bill this session. Even so, Daudt kept his caucus together in the House in order to block passage of the measure.
Gov. Tim Walz made mention of the impasse in a call with reporters on Monday to offer his own assessment of the session breakdown. “Unfortunately about two weeks ago the tone was set tying the belief that my emergency powers in our administration to combat COVID 19, the very same powers that were granted by the Legislature and had been exercised by governors throughout Minnesota’s history, were viewed as something not acceptable,” Walz said. “I believe we could have got it done. We’re willing to negotiate and change our positions. This was kind of an all or nothing thing on the emergency powers and that’s a difficult position.” Walz was joined by DFL legislative leaders during the press conference.
Bakk agreed that Daudt’s position was a tough one to address and said unless the state’s leaders can reach an accommodation that allows the Republican leader to save face, a bonding bill may face a troubled path forward. “The peacetime emergency gives the governor the right to issue executive orders,” noted Bakk. “I have to believe he will extend it. What worries me is that if the order is still in place on June 12, a bonding bill may not happen.”
Lawmakers are set to return to St. Paul, at least briefly, on June 12, assuming the governor opts to extend the COVID-19 emergency order at that time. Many lawmakers, including Ecklund, are hoping that a bonding bill could advance at that time as well.
It wasn’t just House members who couldn’t agree on a bonding measure. While Bakk says Senate leaders had agreed on the price tag for the session’s bonding bill, the Senate ultimately failed to pass its own version, mostly over differences in project priorities.
“We didn’t see the Senate Republicans’ bill until the day before adjournment,” said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, a St. Paul DFLer. “When we saw it, it was much smaller than the number that we discussed. If that had happened a few days earlier maybe that would have worked out okay, but slapping together a big bonding bill at the last minute, especially one that would not cover the entire state adequately and fairly and did not do what we needed it to do in terms of delivering jobs and important projects for Minnesotans, it did not measure up.”
Walz acknowledged that he had reached out to DFLers in the Senate urging them to oppose the bill as drafted by the GOP majority. Minnesota remains the only state in the country with a Legislature that’s divided between the parties.
While many legislators see their June 12 return as a second chance at a bonding bill, Walz is non-committal about a special session for that purpose, saying that he remains focused on the day-to-day management of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If it’s determined coming back for a special session is the right thing to do, I think the June 12 date keeps coming up because that’s the emergency declaration,” Walz said.
“We chose to take a very conservative interpretation of a statute that is very vague about the extension of emergency powers. It does not call for the Legislature to come back in. I have asked for that.”