Project backers urge lawmakers to support special session
ST. PAUL — Testifiers from around the state implored key lawmakers on Tuesday to support efforts to pass a $1 billion public works bill in a special session.
U.S. Highway 14 Partnership President Robert Bussman urged legislators to pass funding to expand U.S. 14 from two lanes to four lanes from Rochester to New Ulm. The failed $1 billion construction bill set aside funding for the project, including widening a stretch of the highway from Dodge Center to Owatonna.
"We've been at this for well over 50 years," Bussman told the committee. He added, "The change from four to two (lanes), plus heavy traffic equals a very dangerous highway."
Despite pleas from project supporters like Bussman, the prospects for a special session remain as uncertain as ever. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders are slated to meet this morning to talk about calling a special session to pass the $1 billion public works bill, along with a package of tax cuts. But Tuesday's legislative hearing picked up right where the 2016 legislative session left off, with plenty of partisan finger pointing. Members of the House-Senate conference committee that put together the public works package blamed each other for the bill's failure to pass in the final minutes of the session.
Democrats noted that the failed bill was filled with errors and accused House Republicans of failing to do their job because they waited too long to together a proposal. Republicans defended their work and noted the last-minute amendment passed by the DFL-led Senate to the bill that would have helped fund the Southwest Light Rail project.
If the dispute in St. Paul isn't resolved, it will mean millions of dollars worth of projects in southeast Minnesota won't get done this year. Local projects that made it into the failed public works bill include $5 million for Rochester International Airport's expansion, $15 million for a rail grade separation in Red Wing, $25 million for Winona State University Education Village, $1.5 million for the Dyslexia Institute of Minnesota and $3.6 million to restore the Lanesboro Dam.
The governor has said he won't call a special session unless he gets an additional $183 million worth of projects added to the public works bill. Meanwhile, some Rochester lawmakers and leaders are pushing for a change of their own — getting $20 million in the bill for a Rochester Community and Technical College project. The RCTC project involves demolishing Plaza and Memorial halls, building a 20,000-square-foot addition and renovating 11,000-square-foot of existing space. Despite the project being ranked seventh on Minnesota State Colleges and Universities priority list, it was left out of the public works bill. Other, lower-ranked projects got funded instead.
Rochester higher education leader Don Supalla sent an email to conference committee members urging them to follow MnSCU's priority list.
"I am particularly concerned that Rochester Community and Technical College's demolition/renovation project, ranked #7 on MnSCU's overall list of recommendations, was omitted from the proposed list in favor of projects ranked much lower on the list," wrote Supalla, executive director of Greater Rochester Advocates for Universities and Colleges.
Brian Yolitz, MnSCU's associate vice chancellor for facilities, told lawmakers that MnSCU's priority list is put together as part of a very deliberative process. He stopped short of urging lawmakers to follow the priority list, but did say the system hoped lawmakers would agree to fund additional projects.
"Simply put, we can't prepare people for the 21st century workforce in outdated facilities, with 50-year-old electrical systems, leaking roofs and 20th century technology," Yolitz said.
Lawmakers' decision to stuff $700 million in transportation funding in the public works bill instead of passing a separate long-term funding bill also generated heated discussion. Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle criticized the number of earmarks for specific road and bridge projects in the bill.
"We think that's a very dangerous precedent. It is choosing winners and losers in ways that don't follow prescribed criteria and priorities which are actually in Minnesota law," Zelle said.
There was also plenty of discussion about the push by Senate Democrats to fund the costly Southwest Light Rail project. Rochester GOP Sen. Dave Senjem, who serves on the conference committee, said it appears that the fate of the public works bill hinges on whether funding for the light rail project is included. Senjem has said such a requirement simply won't win the necessary Republican support.
Senjem asked Metropolitan Council Chairman Adam Duininck, "Is this the linchpin for getting us back into special session — the agreement to do light rail?"
Duininck replied, "I just don't think I'm the right person to give you an answer."
After the meeting, Senjem said the hearing offered no indication of whether a special session deal is possible.
"I don't think the meeting really told us anything about the deal," Senjem said.
Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, attended the meeting and said she was prevented from testifying in front of the committee. Despite that, she did make a brief comment at the end of the meeting that she did not appreciate being "stifled" and urged lawmakers to work toward passing a separate transportation funding bill and a public works bill, also known as a "bonding bill."
In an interview after the meeting, Norton said she was disheartened by the number of earmarks for projects throughout the bill, saying it was one of the most partisan construction measures she had seen during her time in St. Paul. Her hopes for a special session are dwindling.
She added, "I felt no sense of urgency by members of the committee in having a bonding bill."