Legislature squeezes in one more session before election

Published 1:21 pm Monday, October 12, 2020

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A record fifth special session this year gavels in Monday at Minnesota’s Capitol, representing the last chance for lawmakers to approve a public construction package and make tax and budget changes before the election.

The Legislature’s return is a requirement of extending the emergency authority Gov. Tim Walz has used to manage the coronavirus pandemic.

In Minnesota and around the country, we’re in the longest public health emergency in modern times. Back in March, Walz declared a state of emergency and he’s renewed it every month since, prompting the monthly special sessions. On Monday, Walz once again extended his emergency peacetime order by another month.

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Lawmakers can overturn the governor’s directive but it would take a majority vote in the Republican-led Senate and DFL-controlled House.

The Senate will probably cast another vote to rebuke the Walz power, with maybe a couple of Democrats helping out. But House Democrats say a motion to overturn the Walz authority is virtually certain to fail.

Lawmakers could vote on a construction borrowing plan, known as a bonding bill. Negotiations over one have been occurring for months, and key legislators worked out what they say is a compromise.

It would support about $1.8 billion worth of construction. About $1.36 billion of that is through general obligation debt — the sale of bonds paid back over 20 or 30 years. The rest comes out of dedicated accounts or a local match is involved.

Projects range from college building renovations to park trails to flood mitigation to public safety training facilities. A full list can be found here. The House has yet to post a companion bill, so it’s unclear if any major or minor differences remain.

Senate Capital Investment Chair David Senjem, R-Rochester, said this is the last chance to get something done. He said with the economy hurting, a construction plan of this size will provide a boost.

“I think our state needs this jumpstart right now,” Senjem said.

It remains to be seen if it has enough support to pass. All of the action is in the House, where the bonding bill and a tax bill that are seemingly connected to each other must originate.

First, they’d have to suspend the rules to take quick action — that requires a two-thirds vote — if they’re going to have everything done in one day. Then they’d need 81 House votes to pass it, which would also require some Republican help.

Up until now, House Republicans tied consideration of a bill to Walz giving up his emergency powers. That link has been broken, but there are still obstacles.

“We want to make sure a bonding bill doesn’t increase the deficit. There’s still a tax bill in play,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman. “So between the bonding bill, a tax bill and a skinny down supplemental bill, our goal is making sure we don’t increase the deficit.”

He agrees with Senjem that a bonding bill can be a lift during the recession and as the private sector is holding back on capital expansions. But he hopes the money to pay the debt can be found in the existing state budget, which is in deficit territory due to the pandemic.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she wants to get a bill passed and will call a vote if there’s a chance to do that.

“We’re hopeful that the minority leader hasn’t traded one deal killing condition for another deal killing condition. We’re hoping we can get a breakthrough,” Hortman said. “It remains unclear whether the House GOP wants to pass a bonding bill on this Monday special session day.”

MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire contributed to this report.

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