Mueller pushing for infrastructure funding

Published 6:25 pm Friday, January 28, 2022

With three principle topics in tow, Rep. Patricia Mueller (27B-R) is walking into her second legislative session with purpose.

The 2022 session gets underway Monday with a record. $7.7 billion surplus and plenty of areas to apply that money. At the head of Mueller’s list is infrastructure investment, which hopefully includes funding for the Austin Wastewater Treatment Plant project, which would update the 100 plus year old facility.

“I will not vote for anything that’s recurring funding,” Mueller said Friday afternoon. “That doesn’t make any sense at all. This is the opportunity to invest in core factions of the government and that’s infrastructure.”

Rep. Patricia Mueller (R-27B)

Gov. Tim Walz has ear-marked a record $2.7 billion bonding bill that would go toward infrastructure and projects like the Wastewater Treatment Plant. A good number of other road and bridge projects coming up in the next three years could also benefit from that money, including two bridge replacements over Interstate 90 in Austin, as well as a paving project on Highway 56 in LeRoy.

Currently, the estimated price tag of the Wastewater Treatment Plant comes to around $80 million dollars.

Mueller said that initially $7.4 million had been allocated to the project, but that request had to be rewritten. The city was hoping for $13 million to offset the tax hike, but with the rise in construction costs, that request is now coming to $14.5 million.

Still, Mueller said she was confident that even in a busy mid-term election year, that money will make its way to Austin.

“I feel like ($14.5 million) is incredibly appropriate,” Mueller said. “I feel very confident about it.”

Mueller also said that there is some American Rescue Plan money available that was specifically set aside for infrastructure projects. On top of that, there are some early indications that there is some agreement among state legislators.

While initial reaction was positive from the Democratic House bonding chair, Rep. Fue Lue, of Minneapolis, the Senate bonding chief, independent Tom Bakk, of Cook, wasn’t ready to set a dollar target. But Bakk said asset preservation and deferred maintenance are priorities for him, suggesting there’s at least some common ground.

Along with the bonding bill, Mueller is hoping to gain more support for her short-call substitute teacher program that would allow schools to hire a substitute teacher, provided a background check is passed, for 15 days.

The hope is that passage of this bill in instituting the pilot program will alleviate pressures put on districts in the face of teacher shortages, a problem that’s been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Mueller introduced the bill in her first session as legislator last year and even though it didn’t make it through, Mueller said she found support on both sides of the aisle.

“Because of that, I reached out to the majority party,” Mueller said. “Who would like to help me with this? I got a couple people willing to sit down and talk with me.”

Those talks also included the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board. Initial language wasn’t to Mueller’s liking and so was reworked. Out of that came an ideal hybrid model.

“It offers a lot more flexibility,” Mueller said.

Another aspect that is drawing Mueller’s attention this session is repaying the unemployment insurance using surplus funds, which Mueller maintains would alleviate pressures on small businesses to pay the impending tax on unemployment insurance.

Aside from those three areas, Mueller would also like to see Mower County included in an alternative incarceration program that would find alternatives to jail for low-level drug offenses that would instead focus more on holistic rehabilitative treatment options.

While Mueller remains hopeful for a number of these to receive attention, she’s also somewhat realistic.

“We’ve been telling people to keep expectations low,” she said. “This is an election year.”

At the same time, she feels that after the first year and the steep learning curve that came with it, she’s in a better situation to help push some of these items through.

“You don’t know what to expect when you are heading into this,” Mueller said. “I feel more confident and more competent in the issues I’m advocating for.”

— The Associated Press has contributed to this story