Bonding bill passes House, now moves on to the Senate

Published 6:30 pm Tuesday, March 7, 2023

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With broad bipartisan support, the Minnesota House on Tuesday night passed a $1.9 billion capital investment package that would direct funds toward critical infrastructure needs, which includes Austin’s own wastewater treatment plant.

The bonding bill passed 91-43 with 21 Republicans joining Democrats. Among the projects slated to receive funds is the $105 million wastewater treatment plant project, which has ballooned in cost over the last few years due to inflationary costs.

Austin is looking at getting $14.5 million from the package, similar to requested funding last year, but down from the $20 million the City requested.

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Still, it’s an optimistic step forward for City leaders.

“A lot of votes came from the Republican side,” said Mayor Steve King a day after the bill passed. “I’m heartened and encouraged about that.”

However, a political stalemate in both 2021 and 2022 could become an issue again as the bill slides over to the Senate where reactions already indicate a tougher road to passage in the slim Democratically controlled Senate.

There, Democrats hold just a 34-33 advantage and Republicans are already threatening to challenge the bill if some sort of tax relief using the state’s $17.6 billion budget isn’t included.

It’s an all too familiar and frustrating scenario for Austin.

“I worry about the verbiage,” King said. “I view the bonding bill as nonpartisan. It’s the nuts and bolts the city needs to thrive.”

Using Minnesota’s surplus for tax relief has been a long-held aim for Republicans since the surplus was announced, however, both House and Senate leaders have threatened to pay for a potentially much bigger list of projects just out of the surplus.

Senate GOP leaders wouldn’t specify Monday which, or how much, of those tax cuts they’ll need to get to put up votes for a bonding bill but said they’re open to negotiations.

“How can we in good conscience go back to the taxpayers of Minnesota and say, oh yeah, we have this historic surplus, almost $18 billion, but we’re going to put almost $2 billion on a credit card and not give you a penny of your hard-earned dollars back?” said Sen. Karin Housley, of Stillwater, the lead Republican on the Senate Capital Investment Committee.

Rep. Patricia Mueller (R-23B) was among the Republicans to vote in favor of the bill.

“Against incredible pressure to not vote for it,” Mueller said Tuesday afternoon. “Other people wanted to use it as leverage.”

Austin’s $14.5 million would come out of the cash-only portion of the bill of $393 million. The rest, $1.5 billion, will be borrowed by the state.

Austin’s share, which Mueller has been working to secure for two years, is very close to the framework which was asked for last year.

“This was the bill that was negotiated at the end of last session,” Mueller said. “This is not their new bonding bill that normally would be in the 2024 session.”

It’s now hoped that Sen. Gene Dornink (R-23) and other senators will follow suit when it comes time for the Senate to vote.

“I encourage any legislator, senator to be a leader on this,” King said. “‘My district needs me, needs my voice.’ It’s not the point to play politics.”

However, politics is what Austin has been seeing as it’s worked to get construction started on the wastewater treatment plant for a number of years. The City has had to cope with several frustrating turns during this time, including the failure of receiving last year’s requested funds when the bonding bill stalled out at the last minute.

In the meantime, the Austin City Council agreed in 2022 to a 15% sewer fee increase this year, followed by a 10% increase in 2024 and another 7% increase in both 2025 and 2026. The increases will help make up for lost revenue.

If funding fails to be secured this year, then more could be heaped on taxpayers and it could also affect projects later down the line.

“It couldn’t be more frustrating the inactivity last year when they had $9, $10 billion in the surplus,” King said. “Now it’s $17, almost $18 billion, and they’re holding on to the money we desperately need.”

— The Associated Press and contributed to this article