ST. PAUL — With only minutes to spare before Monday's midnight deadline, the Minnesota Senate gave final approval to a tax bill with more than $400 million to support Mayo Clinic's 20-year expansion plans.
Had that bill not passed this year, bill author Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said he believes Rochester would have risked losing its status as the home of Mayo Clinic.
"If this bill wouldn't have gone forward and prevailed, most obviously to me is that they would have established the future flagship of Rochester in some other city," he said. "That would have been about the most disappointing thing that could ever happen to this community."
But backers of Mayo's Destination Medical Center managed to defy the expectations of plenty of Capitol insiders, getting the massive bill passed on their first try.
"It's amazing. The fact that this was written in January and is passing into law this quickly is astounding," said House bill author Kim Norton. "This is a body that tends to think and rethink and work on things forever and we should but it really does speak to how important Mayo Clinic is to the state of Minnesota."
In January, Mayo announced plans to invest $3.5 billion to expand its Rochester campus and leverage another $2 billion in private funds to turn the city into global destination for health care. But before making that investment, the clinic ask the state to help the city of Rochester and Olmsted County with infrastructure upgrades needed to support that massive growth.
The tax bill that includes DMC passed the Senate 36-30 and is awaiting DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's signature.
Mayo Clinic President and CEO John Noseworthy issued a statement thanking lawmakers for making Destination Medical Center a reality.
"This is a very exciting moment for Mayo Clinic, the city, county and for the entire state of Minnesota," he said. "We offer our sincere thanks and gratitude to the leaders at the local, regional and state level who came together to help make this bold, once-in-a-generation economic development opportunity a reality for our state."
Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede said the bill's passage guarantees that the city will thrive well into the future. Now begins the hard work to make it happen. As part of the deal, the city is expected to contribute $128 million toward the project and Olmsted County chipping in roughly $40 million for transportation.
"It's a big challenge, there's no question. In some ways, it's almost like building a new city," he said.
The DFL-led Legislature managed to get all of its work done on time, passing a $38 billion, two-year budget that eliminates the state's $627 million budget shortfall while boosting funding for education and providing $400 million in property tax relief. To do that, it relies on $2 billion in tax increases that targets wealthier Minnesotans, smokers and corporations. Along with the budget, this session will also be remembered for lawmakers passing a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. More than 6,000 people gathered in front of the Capitol to watch the bill signing., which came six months after voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
This marked the first session in 23 years where Democrats controlled the House, Senate and the Governor's mansion. Republicans accused Democrats of overreaching by backing massive tax hikes and pushing socially-divisive issues. Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, told fellow senators that while she is a strong supporter of Destination Medical Center, she could not vote for a tax bill that could threaten the state's fragile economic recovery.
"I cannot and simply will not go home to my district and report that I have supported over $2 billion in permanent taxes," she said.
Meanwhile, Senjem joined Democrats in voting for the tax bill to support Mayo's project despite his opposition to much of what's in the bill.
"Destination Medical Center is, in my view, a diamond in the rough. It's something I am proud to be a part of," he said.
Democrats defended their budget saying it solves the state's long-term budget woes while making investments in key areas that suffered under Republican rule.
"This is a measured response to an ongoing budget problem that has plagued Minnesota for the last 10 years, and I think this compromise solution is going to set us up for a decade of prosperity and of investing in Minnesota and no playing games with our budget," said Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing.
Small bonding bill
Monday's last-minute legislative finish came after work ground to a halt over a disagreement between House and Senate Democrats over whether to move ahead with a bare bones bonding bill that included money to restore the state Capitol building. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he was not willing to end the session without money for the Capitol. That faced opposition from some House Democrats, including Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester. She said passing funding for the Capitol this year would make it that much more difficult to win support next year for a large bonding bill that includes Rochester's Mayo Civic Center expansion.
In the end, lawmakers agreed to a $154 million bonding bill that included $109 million for the Capitol, $23 million for state Capitol parking, $20 million for flood mitigation, $19 million for the Minneapolis Veterans Home and $8 million for sewers. It enjoyed strong support from Republicans, including Rep. Mike Benson of Rochester.
"Small bonding bill with projects even this conservative can support just passed in the house," Benson tweeted after the vote.
Democrats also managed to reach a deal with House Republicans to allow a vote to move forward on the a bill allowing in-home child care providers and Personal Care Attendants to unionize. The bill passed the House by a vote of 68-66 as supporters and protesters rallied outside the chamber. Three area Democrats — Liebling, Norton and Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona — joined Republicans in voting against the measure.
Liebling said while she has always been a strong supporter of workers' right to unionize, she felt this bill went to far. In this case, child care workers wouldn't be bargaining for their own wages or worker conditions. Instead, they would be bargaining over payments made to low-income families to pay for health care. She also fears that some providers angry over the union issue may refuse to take children on state assistance.
"I think that's nasty, mean and horrible, but if they do it a lot of children won't have access," she said.
Supporters argued this would not force anyone to join a union. It simply give them the opportunity to unionize, which will allow them to negotiate more effectively with the state. In a statement, bill sponsor Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said, "This bill is about ensuring the basic rights of undervalued workers to choose for themselves if they want to collectively bargain for better wages."