'Do-nothing session' could change control of MN Legislature

ST. PAUL -- Motorists heading out of Willmar to St. Cloud or the Twin Cities can expect a couple of traffic jams. Minnesota 23 is a modern, four-lane road until it hits New London, then it bottlenecks down to two lanes to Paynesville, squeezing t...

ST. PAUL - Motorists heading out of Willmar to St. Cloud or the Twin Cities can expect a couple of traffic jams.

Minnesota 23 is a modern, four-lane road until it hits New London, then it bottlenecks down to two lanes to Paynesville, squeezing trucks, commuters and tourists into a slow-moving, often-congested mess. Drivers hit another two-lane gap just north of Paynesville.

Highway 23 is a major freight corridor for west central Minnesota, and residents of the region have been clamoring for widening the road for years.

That's why the Legislature not passing a public works borrowing bill this year has become a hot campaign topic in the swing districts that represent the area.

Democrats blame Republicans. Republicans blame the Democrats. For voters, the breakdown over bonding reinforces a widely held view that it was another "do-nothing session" at the Capitol.


In a year when all 201 Minnesota House and Senate seats are on the ballot, voters' views

of the results - or lack of results - of the current split Legislature could impact who controls it next session.

Fodder for critics

"My entire campaign is focused on the fact that nothing gets done down there," said James Leiman, a Republican Senate candidate from Ada, sounding a theme common among challengers.

The charge is not just political rhetoric. Lawmakers' inability to strike a compromise on a $1 billion construction bill last spring is causing costly delays for many government-funded projects and could spell the demise of others.

"Some projects in this year's bonding bill will never make it into the next bonding bill," said Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans. Future bonding requests will get pushed farther back in line.

Local taxpayers and service users will have to foot the bill for some projects that can't wait.

For instance, the cities of St. Francis, Blackduck, Walker and the Central Iron Range Sanitary District decided they could not delay sewer and water projects and started construction without the state funding they were counting on, Jeff Freeman, executive director of the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority, reported in August. That will mean higher user fees for residents and businesses.


Gov. Mark Dayton and Democratic-Farmer-Labor and Republican legislative leaders held sporadic talks over the past four months trying to reach agreement on a special session to pass a bonding bill and $300 million in tax cuts that both parties favored. But Dayton declared a special session dead Sept. 23 after the two parties failed to cut a deal on the bonding bill.

Political fallout

Democrats now control the state Senate, while Republicans run the House. DFLers need to pick up seven House seats to regain control of that chamber, while Republicans need to flip six Senate seats to take charge.

Many of the most competitive races are in outstate districts where bonding projects are a big deal. Take House District 17B in the Willmar area, for example. In the past three elections, it has flipped from Republican to DFL and back to Republican.

This year's election is a rematch between first-term GOP Rep. Dave Baker and Mary Sawatzky, the DFLer he unseated two years ago. Both live in Willmar.

One of the hottest issues there is completion of Minnesota 23 as a four-lane highway between Willmar and

St. Cloud. All but 15 miles of that 53-mile segment have been widened.

Baker and Sawatzky desperately want the state to finish that project, but they disagree over how to do it.


When she was in the House in 2013-14, Sawatzky said, DFLers who controlled the Legislature "did what the (Minnesota Department of Transportation) needed to make that project shovel-ready. ... We handed it to them (the 2015-16 Legislature) on a silver platter, and they didn't get it done."

Sawatzky said Baker shares responsibility for House Republicans' refusal to support a long-term funding increase for roads and bridges. Instead, the House GOP passed a bonding bill that earmarked nearly $300 million for seven road projects, including Highway 23, thanks in part to Baker's advocacy.

Sawatzky argued that allowing legislators to prioritize projects ahead of those ranked higher by MnDOT injects politics into the process and sets a bad precedent. She wants to provide an ongoing source of new revenue to fund transportation projects and has not ruled out increasing the gas tax.

Baker responded that the earmark he tucked into the bonding bill would have provided much of the money needed for Highway 23, but Senate DFLers "blew up" a bipartisan agreement on the last night of the session by insisting Hennepin County be allowed to fund the proposed Southwest Light Rail line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. House Republicans adamantly oppose light rail.

Baker contends more bonding money should go to roads and bridges. While he opposes a gas tax increase, he said he's willing to consider raising license tab fees and diverting some current sales tax collections to transportation projects.

"It's something I'll keep fighting for," he said of Highway 23.

The partisan roles are reversed in the Senate district that represents the Willmar area - but the arguments are similar. There, a GOP challenger blames a DFL senator for not getting Highway 23 done.

Republican Andrew Lang of Olivia criticized Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, for voting for the light-rail project that pulled down the bonding bill that would have funded District 17's most critical road project.

"People in western Minnesota are not fond of spending gargantuan amounts of money on trains and light rail," Lang said.

Koenen, a veteran lawmaker in a Republican-leaning district, said he supported the Highway 23 earmark in the bonding bill and accepted the light-rail provision to be fair to metro cities' senators. "(Suburban) districts almost never get bonding projects," he said. Without the light-rail provision, "you're expecting those people to vote for a bill with nothing in it for them."

Koenen said he's confident he can help the next Legislature pass a bonding bill and find state dollars for Highway 23.

But for now, DFL and GOP legislators who failed to deliver expected bonding projects face the same charge from challengers: "You didn't get your work done."

What didn't get done

The stories are similar regarding hundreds of construction projects across the state.

Now, the folks who were counting on that money are trying to figure out when and if Dayton and the Legislature will ever deliver the goods. Legislative leaders say they plan to pass a bonding package that funds projects in the 2016 bill soon after the next session convenes in January.

While some fiscal conservatives were pleased to block a bonding that would have increased the state's debt, the vast majority of legislators in both parties favored funding infrastructure improvements.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler takes the bill's supporters at their word that they will revive the bonding bill. Of the $80 million-plus in U projects in that measure, he said, "They won't be killed."

Time, however, is money. With construction inflation running at 4 percent annually in the Twin Cities area, Kaler estimated the cost of a proposed U health education center would rise from

$100 million this year to $104 million next year. (The state pays two-thirds of the cost of U bonding projects.)

With an earlier state grant, Catholic Charities will complete the first phase of the new Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul, called the "Higher Ground" homeless shelter, as scheduled in December. But officials there were counting on an additional $12 million from the state this year to complete their second phase, called the "Opportunity Center," in 2018 to provide counseling, health and employment services.

Tim Marx, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said they expect to get the state dollars and are "trying to get everything aligned so when we get assurance the funding is coming, we can move forward with the project."

In the meantime, he said, construction costs will go up about $230,000 a month or $2.3 million over a year.

"I expect that a lot of folks who are in our situation (waiting for bonding money) are trying to figure out how they keep their foot on the gas pedal, knowing that they're not quite sure there's going to be fuel in the tank," Marx said.

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