Like a batter who habitually strikes out, a $1.37 billion bonding, or jobs bill, is on-deck in a special session of the Minnesota Legislature that started today. But this time, the state Senate's chief author predicts, the outcome for this so-far star-crossed piece of legislation won't be a whiff.
"I think there's a path here to get there," said GOP Sen. Dave Senjem, chairman of the Senate Capital Investment Committee. "We have too much momentum right now."
The bill has previously failed to muster the three-fifths majority, or 81 votes, needed to pass in the DFL-led House, with House Republicans being the chief stumbling block.
The bill includes one new feature that Senjem sought and may make it more enticing for legislators: $30 million for five highway projects to make them shovel-ready, including the Highway 14 and County Road 104 interchange near Rochester.
That accident-prone intersection -- a site where former Olmsted County Commissioner Jim Daley died in July -- has been a major concern for local elected and state transportation officials, but efforts at building a new interchange there have been stymied by a lack of funds.
Just last month, county commissioners expressed disappointment that a 10-year plan presented by the Minnesota Department of Transportation officials did not include the project.
By making the Highway 14 interchange "shovel-ready" -- work that involves completion of an environmental analysis, predesign, design and engineering -- it would presumably "elevate" its status within MnDOT and accelerate the timeline for its completion.
"Once they are in a shovel-ready position, they score a lot better, obviously, in the decision-making process," Senjem said.
The commitment to that and four other highway projects was contained in an Oct. 12 letter from MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher to Senjem, Senate and House caucus leaders and capital investment chairs.
House Republican leaders have previously thwarted passage of the bill, both in regular and special sessions. They have offered various rationales for their opposition, including conditioning their support on Gov. Tim Walz giving up his peacetime emergency powers to contain the coronavirus as well as arguing that the state can't afford the debt with a $4.7 billion budget hole looming.
GOP Rep. Nels Pierson voted against the bonding bill in the special session last July. In an email Monday, Pierson did not say how he would vote. As a member of the House Investment Committee, he said he has logged nearly 300 hours in committee hearings and touring the state looking at the state's needs.
"It has been very disappointing, the lack of participation offered by the Democrats for the input one would expect since they do need Republicans in the House to vote for the bill in order for it to pass the House," Pierson said. "We are still in negotiations, and I am working hard to make sure our local projects remain in any bill under consideration."
Senjem said the bill will provide a much-needed stimulus at a time of pandemic-induced economic sluggishness, as well as address long-overdue infrastructure needs. The legislation includes money for Rochester International Airport, improvements at Cascade Lake Park, and an Oronoco wastewater project.