Construction projects bill stumble leaves entities seeking building aid searching for workarounds

Published 8:10 am Friday, May 24, 2024

By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

Local governments, public colleges and universities and state agencies are regrouping this week after Minnesota lawmakers closed out the legislative session without passing a public construction projects bill.

In their tumultuous close late Sunday, Minnesota lawmakers left St. Paul without passing the massive borrowing bill. Typically, the package is the marquee item in even-numbered years.

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Lawmakers picked through more than $7 billion in project requests this year and cut the pile to about $1 billion. But next to none will get state funding since partisan disagreements derailed a bill. A small number got slid into other legislation, including a $22 million appropriation to help pay for a new State Patrol headquarters; that is in a bill awaiting action by Gov. Tim Walz.

A barebones projects bill that would have been paid for in cash or other methods that don’t require a legislative supermajority cleared the Minnesota House just before midnight but couldn’t make it through the Senate in time.

On Wednesday evening, a couple dozen people milled about Woodbury City Hall, reviewing posters that spelled out the timeline for the forever chemicals known as PFAS getting into the city’s drinking water — and designs for a new treatment plant that will remove them.

The city asked the Legislature for $7.4 million to help Woodbury offset the cost of a new water tower to hold treated water. The request was supposed to help chip away at the $19 million overall cost of the project.

But now, the city is preparing to take it on alone.

“The water tower is still one of the solutions. It’s in our capital improvement plan and we plan to build it and bring it to the community by the summer of 2025,” Public Works Director Mary Van Milligen said. “But we may have to bond for some part of that and pay with rate increases.”

Woodbury will hardly be alone. But some communities might not have other options or an off-ramp to keep work moving along.

“Outstate Minnesota puts a lot of faith in legislators looking at the bonding requests,” said Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities President Rick Schultz. He is also the mayor of St. Joseph. “So I’m really disappointed in not getting anything across the finish line.”

Schultz said that each time a project gets delayed, prices go up. And that makes it a tougher ask to make.

“The money is definitely needed,” he said. “The projects in Greater Minnesota just will die a slow death of maintenance and water quality and any of those infrastructure needs.”

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Vice Chancellor for Finance and Facilities Bill Maki echoed that concern. The system requested state help to fund asset preservation and replacement projects on several of its campuses.

“The path we are on is not sustainable,” Maki said, noting the campuses had hosted lawmakers for 40 separate project tours. “We will continue to press our case.”

Albert Lea Mayor Rich Murray said his community is still holding out hope that lawmakers can come together and approve the city’s request for $40 million to upgrade its water treatment facility. The state pollution control agency required Albert Lea to cut down on phosphorus levels in its drinking water. The upgrades come with a total $80 million price tag.

“For a community the size of Albert Lea, a little over 18,000 people, that’s a serious, serious price tag,” Murray said. “There’s just no way we can burden our community with that much of an increase. I mean, this would triple sewer rates in this community. And that would just be devastating.”

Some local leaders have urged Walz to call a special legislative session to get a construction projects bill across the finish line. The second-term DFL governor said he doesn’t plan to call a special session but will propose a sizable project funding package next year.

“I think it’s important that we get focused, we are going to need a robust bonding bill,” Walz told MPR News this week. “And I’m just going to preview: I’m gonna have a pretty robust one next year, because of the absence of one this year.”

Public construction bills are unique because they require a three-fifths majority to let the state take on debt to fund projects. Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, served as minority lead on the House Capital Investment Committee.

Urdahl said lawmakers should prioritize funding projects and stop tying the bill to other items. That’s what happened this year, as Republican leaders sought to block a vote on an equal rights constitutional amendment and ensure there was additional funding for rural emergency medical service providers, among other stipulations. Urdahl agreed with Democrats that unrelated proposals shouldn’t be linked to bonding.

“We need to keep the pipeline going, we need to do it on schedule and get things done because we, as I’ve said, are here to serve the interests of the people of Minnesota, and to take care of this state,” Urdahl said. “We own the buildings, we own the property, those things that we have under our control, we should make sure that we take care of.”

Control of the Minnesota House, and possibly the Minnesota Senate, will be decided by voters in November. Lawmakers are set to return for the 2025 legislative session in January.

MPR News senior politics reporter Clay Masters contributed to this report.