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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Legislators come through when Legislature doesn’t

David Colburn
Posted 5/23/24

In the normal course of the legislative cycle, this was a year the Minnesota Legislature was expected to pass a bonding bill to fund. To be sure, it was to be smaller than usual, given the $2.6 …

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Legislators come through when Legislature doesn’t


In the normal course of the legislative cycle, this was a year the Minnesota Legislature was expected to pass a bonding bill to fund. To be sure, it was to be smaller than usual, given the $2.6 billion in funding provided for capital improvement projects last year with the state’s huge budget surplus.
Still, Gov. Tim Walz prefaced the legislative session with his own desired list of projects for a borrowing bill totaling $982 million, with nearly half of the money devoted to rehabilitating state-owned facilities. Support for water and transportation infrastructure, public safety, and housing and the environment were other priority areas in the plan. It was a responsible plan, Walz argued, in the face of over $3 billion in local government requests.
Also, before the session started, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, made it abundantly clear that, “The state’s borrowing bill will be the biggest order of business.”
If we were to use Hortman’s statement as a measuring stick, it’s also abundantly clear that the just-completed session of the Legislature was an abject failure. Given Republican opposition to more spending, it was always a longshot, but I sincerely believe with a stronger sense of compromise in the Legislature some sort of agreement could have been reached. After all, what legislator doesn’t like being able to bring home the bacon for their local constituents?
But compromise seems to be less and less a part of the legislative process, and down the homestretch of the session things became more and more contentious. And the point of no return for the bonding bill may have come in the wee hours of the morning on April 22 when DFL Sen. Nicole Mitchell slipped through the basement window of her mother-in-law’s house dressed in black with the alleged intent of taking items that belonged to her deceased father. The resulting felony burglary charge further polarized an already divided Senate, with Republicans filing an ethics complaint and trying to get Mitchell’s voting privileges revoked and the DFL defending the right of the citizens of Mitchell’s district to have representation and Mitchell’s right to due process. With the increased animosity between the parties, getting the three-fifths majority needed to pass a bonding bill in the time remaining turned out to be an impossibly high hurdle to clear. A much smaller cash-only capital improvements bill requiring only a majority vote was passed by the House, but in the chaotic final minutes of Sunday’s final Senate floor session the vote came 30 seconds too late to meet the midnight deadline for passage, and it, too, died.
But in a prescient reading of the political tea leaves, Rep. Dave Lislegard and Sen. Grant Hauschild saw the challenges and formulated an escape plan of sorts that would get Iron Range communities the funding they needed for many important projects sooner rather than having to wait two years for the next bonding bill cycle. With Rep. Roger Skraba signing on to Lislegard’s bill in the House as a co-author, the plan was to leverage future taconite tax receipts to pay off about $80 million in bonds to be issued now. The three-fifths approval requirement for a standard bonding bill didn’t apply here. With DFL lawmakers shepherding the measure through a DFL-controlled Legislature, odds of success were good, excellent even in comparison to the bonding bill.
They did have to deal with objections from Republicans who argued that the bill circumvented both the bonding bill process and the usual course of business at the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, but Lislegard and Hauschild were determined advocates for using locally-generated revenue to tackle local needs, and were supported by precedent. Although as Hauschild pointed out in a conversation with the Timberjay, it was the first time the process would be used to fund smaller local community needs rather than a major construction project. The gambit worked as hoped, with the bills passing their respective committees and chambers and being incorporated along with eight other bills into the gargantuan tax bill rammed through in the waning hours of the legislative session.
So, while the rest of the state is left to cool its heels for the next two years, the Iron Range will be awash in the activities funded through Lislegard’s and Hauschild’s efforts.
To be sure, there are some items in the list that appear to make immediate sense, while others may raise a few eyebrows in wonder. Three million dollars each for Tower and Lone Pine Township/Nashwauk for water and sewage treatment projects, for example, will let those needed projects move full steam ahead now. The $5.25 million for sports facilities for the Ely school district is something that will raise eyebrows in many circles – after all, there are always those who see better uses for scarce funds than sports, something the NFL champion Kansas City Chiefs were reminded of earlier this year when Kansas City taxpayers rejected a proposal for public funding of a new football stadium there. This writer will try to walk the fine line between raising an eyebrow and still celebrating the award for the sake of future students who will surely benefit from the improvements. And, of course, I wouldn’t have quibbled much at all if the bill had included $2 million to replace the poorly constructed substandard swamp of a football field at North Woods. Just walking the sideline of that field is an adventure, let alone playing on it. I guess it’s safe to say I’m glad I’m not the one making the decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t. There’s never enough to go around for all the needs.
Right now, the communities of the Iron Range have about 80 million reasons to be thankful because of the savvy actions of two local legislators who were determined to put local dollars to use here at home now. To be sure, they needed the help of their colleagues to get the bill through to the finish line, but credit goes not so much to the Legislature but to the two lawmakers who read the landscape and came up with a viable plan to capitalize on what they saw. The Legislature failed on a bonding bill for the entire state, but we’re not in the same foundering boat as the rest. It’s time to move forward on the Iron Range now – put the pedal to the metal and full steam ahead.