ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Senate on Thursday, Oct. 15, sent to the governor's desk a $1.9 billion jobs and projects bill after months of debates and several unsuccessful efforts to get a proposal across the finish line.
The chamber on a 64-3 vote approved the plan that includes authorization to issue bonds to fund wastewater infrastructure, road and bridge repairs and health and agriculture lab updates around the state. The bill also includes a tax cut for farmers and small business owners and additional spending to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 for personal care attendants and direct care and treatment providers and to keep open small prisons in Togo and Willow River.
Lawmakers received more than $5 billion in requests from local governments, colleges and state departments earlier this year. Gov. Tim Walz has said he would sign the bill into law.
Senators gave the green light after several highlighted the importance of the bill to the state's economy and local communities and others frustrated by the way the plan came through the Capitol or the price tag to taxpayers voiced their concerns. A day before, the Minnesota House of Representatives approved the measure and left town, forcing senators to vote on the plan without a chance to amend it.
"It's a big bill from the standpoint of meeting needs across our state, there's no question about that. But I tell you, if you travel this state, the needs are there. There's a lot of fixing up that needs to be done, there's a lot of investment that needs to occur and that's what this bill does," Senate Capital Investment Committee Chair Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said. "I believe sincerely that this is a jumpstart kind of bill and our state needs it."
Leaders in the GOP-led Senate had previously supported the compromise bill and senators had backed prior proposals on a bipartisan basis. But the last-minute addition of spending for a pay boost to state troopers and personal care attendants as well as approval to pull down federal CARES Act funding to pay for part of the package wasn't agreed to in private negotiations.
And several Republican members on Thursday voiced their frustration about not being able to make changes to the plan, essentially making it an up or down vote option.
“We’re denied an extra voice if we want to make this thing better,” Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said, calling the plan an abomination. "It’s akin to taking a chug from a gallon of milk and realizing it’s rancid and it automatically just naturally, impulsively, it expels from your mouth."
Almost all discussions around the bill took place out of the public eye due to COVID-19 concerns and a desire to get majority and minority caucus leaders on board with a plan after several failed efforts. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, on Wednesday told reporters that she thought the House amendments were in line with DFL and GOP leaders earlier deals and didn't mean to "jam the Senate Republicans in any way."
Democrats who ultimately supported the bill also said they were disappointed that the plan didn't include funding to support businesses damaged or destroyed following rioting and arson fires in Minneapolis and St. Paul following the killing of George Floyd. But they felt the package was still worth advancing to kickstart projects and create jobs.
"We've heard a lot of the criticisms of this bill. We know it is not perfect. As has been observed, the bonding bill is the ultimate compromise bill and there's always going to be something that's in it that we don't like, that's not in it that we're not happy about," Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said. "The fact that we have come together for an ambitious and robust bill to take care of the people of Minnesota is something that we should all be proud of."
The plan headed to the governor's desk includes the construction of a joint Minnesota Department of Health and Department of Agriculture lab, new buildings on the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State campuses and renovations on various campuses. The bill would fund $100 million in housing infrastructure bonds and grants for Greater Minnesota communities to get child care facilities up and running.
A supplemental budget portion of the proposal would greenlight additional spending for direct care and treatment services and reimbursements for state departments called in to assist with civil unrest spurred by the killing of George Floyd. And a tax provision would provide relief to small business owners and farmers who were stuck in a loophole spurred by different state and federal tax codes.
Home care workers, trades unions, business and farming groups and local leaders that had pushed hard to get the bill passed before election day celebrated its passage late Wednesday and again Thursday.
"It’s been a long road, but I’m glad that after five special sessions legislators in DFL-led House and Republican-led Senate were able to come together to reach a strong bipartisan agreement on the bonding bill," Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities President and Little Falls Mayor Greg Zylka said. "As our communities continue to struggle with the economic impacts of the pandemic, the projects funded through this bill will create thousands of much-needed jobs and boost economic recovery across the state.
Walz in a news release said he was glad to see the bill make it through the divided Capitol after months of gridlock.
“It’s been a long journey," Walz said. "By finally coming together and working across the aisle, Minnesota proved once again that if Washington won’t lead — we will.”