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Democratic leaders blame House GOP for blocking bonding bill

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Tim Walz and Democratic legislative leaders blamed the top House Republican on Monday for the Legislature’s failure to agree on a public construction borrowing bill during the regular session, but they said they’ll keep trying to reach a deal in time for a special session expected to begin June 12.

“It’s a shame, but I will not give up,” Walz said on a conference call with reporters. “We go around roadblocks. We figure out ways to get there.”

The package, known as a bonding bill, was the most important piece of legislation that needed approval before Sunday night’s deadline. But bonding bills require three-fifths majorities and bipartisan support, which never came together in a session that was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic kind of reached in and grabbed the heart of the legislative session out,” said Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park. “… While we did some really good work to address COVID-19, the regular work of this session — the bonding bill — didn’t get done in time.”

GOP House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, of Crown, made good Saturday on his threat to withhold Republican votes from the House version of the bonding bill, which included about $2 billion worth of projects. While the vote was 75-58, it needed 81 votes to pass. Republicans who control the Senate did not link their $998 million bonding bill with the governor’s emergency powers. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said on a separate call with reporters that he’s committed to passing a compromise in the special session.

Walz and the other Democratic leaders said Daudt’s condition — that the governor relinquish the emergency powers that he’s used to direct the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — remains unacceptable. Hortman said Daudt “has largely not engaged in the bonding conversation.”

But Daudt indicated that he sees plenty of time to reach a deal, given that Walz is required by law to call a special session if, as expected, he once again extends the peacetime emergency declaration that gives him his special powers.

“The coming weeks will give us further clarity on our state’s financial situation, time to evaluate our response to the pandemic, and time to make better decisions,” Daudt said in a statement.’

Another major end-of-session issue left hanging was the fate of contracts with the state’s unionized public employees. While the House voted to ratify them, the Senate’s attached a condition to cancel the 2.5% pay increase scheduled to take effect July 1 for the final year unless the state achieves a budget surplus by July 2021. The state budget has already taken close to a $4 billion hit due to lost tax revenues and pandemic expenses.

Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans, who negotiates collective bargaining contracts for the Walz administration, told reporters that by law the Legislature does not have authority to modify them. He said he expects to issue a decision “within a matter of a day or so” on whether the Senate vote counted as ratification anyway. If the contracts aren’t ratified, pay and benefits would revert to the terms of the previous contact, meaning a pay cut.

Still, the leaders pointed to some important successes from the session, including the passage of $550 million in COVID-19 relief, a long-sought insulin affordability bill, and raising the state’s tobacco and vaping age to 21. Gazelka said the session started out promising in February.

“And then COVID hit,” Gazelka said. “It’s hard to explain what kind of a wrench that threw into how we do legislative work.”

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