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City leaders on the case; Conference investigates what derailed state bonding bill

About 70 greater Minnesota leaders were on the case Wednesday at the Holiday Inn Austin Conference Center to answer a key question for cities across the state: Who killed the state bonding bill?

“We are going to investigate the demise of the bonding bill,” senior lobbyist and attorney Bradley Peterson said. “Is the bill dead or is this merely a missing persons case?”

Through a presentation titled “Law & Order: SOB” — for state office building — Peterson led city leaders through an investigation of the bonding bill’s demise during the first day of the Coalition of Great Minnesota Cities (CGMC) Summer Conference, which is being hosted in Austin through Friday for the first time since 2000.

One thing was clear from the beginning: Most in the room viewed the 2016 Minnesota Legislative session as a failure. A poll of the room saw 90 percent call it a failure — and Peterson said he accidentally voted to call it a success.

In fact, the first conference of session traditionally centers on what happened at the legislative session, but CGMC took a different approach this year.

Senior lobbyist and attorney Bradley Peterson speaks at the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities Summer Conference at the Holiday Inn Austin Conference Center on Wednesday. Jason Schoonover/jason.schoonover@austindailyherald.com

Senior lobbyist and attorney Bradley Peterson speaks at the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities Summer Conference at the Holiday Inn Austin Conference Center on Wednesday. Jason Schoonover/jason.schoonover@austindailyherald.com

“We’re not going to go through a point-by-point what happened at the Legislature,” Peterson said. “Because we all know: nothing happened.”

From the start, Peterson stressed it’s a complicated process to pass a bonding bill since it needs a super majority with support from both parties to pass.

“It is a very tricky deal,” he said. “If the bonding bill is too small, it will fail, If the bonding bill is too big, it will fail. If the bonding bill does not have the right mix of projects, either in terms of the type of infrastructure issues that they address or is regionally balanced, it will fail. Putting together a bonding bill is no easy task, which is why it generally takes two years.”

The group started by setting up the key parts of the case — the scene: the state Capitol, the victim: the $990 million bonding bill and everything included in it, and persons of interest: House Speaker Kurt Daud, R-Crown, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, House Bonding Committee Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, and Senate Bonding Committee Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer. Also included were other parties like Gov. Mark Dayton, the public, party activists and community leaders.

Peterson led people through a quick summary of key events with the bonding bill:

—On Jan. 15, Dayton introduces his version of the bill with a total of $1.4 billion, which included $167 million for water infrastructure upgrades. Water infrastructure needs have been key for cities as they work to meet new Minnesota Pollution Control standards, which could cost Austin more than $20 million.

—On March 8, the session starts on schedule.

—On April 7, House Republicans release a $600 bonding bill target — but not a bill — which Peterson argued was probably too small to garner enough support to pass in the House and Senate.

—On May 2, Senate Democrats unveil a $1.8 billion bonding bill with $167 million in water infrastructure changes — perhaps too large in comparison to the House bill. On May 5, the Senate votes on its bill, which gets 40 votes and fails by a single vote.

By this point, the House has yet to release a bonding bill, only its forecast, which became a point of contention, and Democrats begin pushing for the full bill.

—On May 18, the House releases its $800 million bonding bill with $146 million for water infrastructure. But on May 19, the House bill, which needed 81 votes, fails with 69 votes.

Though both bills failed in the House and Senate, the conference committee meets on the two bonding bills.

“This is pretty highly irregular,” Peterson said.

Greater Minnesota Partnership Executive Director Dan Dorman worked on two bonding bills during his 1999-2006 tenure as a Republican District 27A representative. He agreed it was very unusual to have conference meetings on failed bonding bills.

—On May 22, the last day of the session to pass bills, the House introduces a $990 million bonding bill with $133.5 million for water infrastructure. But the bill is introduced with only 40 minutes left in session.

Peterson described the chaotic scene of House Democrats cramming into rooms to see projects lists on a spreadsheet without even seeing the full bill language and the finer details.

“It’s an amazing scene,” Peterson said.

The bill passes 91-39 at 11:45 p.m with 15 minutes to go. The bill is rushed over the Senate, where passes 53-12 at 11:53 p.m.; however, an amendment is added involving the southwest light rail, which requires the House to pass the amended bill. But the House adjourns at 11:56 p.m. without voting on the amended bill.

“Almost immediately, the blame game starts,” Peterson said.

The blame games largely centers around the light rail addition, which Republicans argued Democrats slipped it in without their knowledge and Democrats arguing Republicans knew it needed to be included to pass.

The prospects for a special session have improved, as state leaders met last week and set a goal for an August special session. Peterson said he expects there to be a special session; however, he anticipates it will only address a tax bill and bonding bill, not much-discussed transportation funding.

But one thing is clear to Peterson after this session: The state needs to look at how it does business, as its standards and procedures have drifted far from the normal way of doing business.

“We are experiencing a pretty significant drift in terms of disfunction, and it is becoming more and more pronounced,” he said. “And we all, you all, are the victims of this. There are a lot of important projects that need to get done.”

But without a bonding bill and transportation funding, the cities are left behind.

“These wastewater projects are hugely important,” he said. “They’re tremendously expensive for local communities to take on by themselves. The state needs to step up and help.”

He urged city leaders to take a key role in helping turn things around, as he called on city leaders to put pressure on state leaders to pass a tax bill, a bonding bill and resolution on transportation.

“There’s not a lot of levers other than shame, but I’m also a firm believer that shame can also be a very powerful lever to use,” Peterson said.

And at the end of the session, Peterson didn’t point fingers at one party for derailing the bill — he left that up to each person.

“Who killed the bonding bill? I’ll leave that for you to decide,” Peterson said, joking he would talk about it more in the bar later.