Can state leaders pass early $1.9B infrastructure package?

A Minnesota infrastructure plan would repair leaking roofs in college buildings, improve dangerous local roads and fix aging trails and community centers.

The fate of the $1.9 billion deal could be decided Monday. Legislators who negotiated the agreement — which is on par with a record-setting 2020 state construction package — are waiting to see whether it holds or disintegrates on the House floor.

"There will be some people who are looking to leverage something, and they may vote no on the bill," said Rep. Dean Urdahl, the GOP lead on infrastructure negotiations. "But there likely are going to be more than enough [votes] to pass the bill from Republicans."

If the House and Senate both pass the bill — which remains a big if — then DFL Gov. Tim Walz said he would sign it into law, a spokeswoman said.

One bill up for a vote Monday contains roughly $1.5 billion in borrowing. That measure, which uses general obligation bonds, requires a three-fifths supermajority to pass. In the House, that means all Democrats and at least 11 Republicans need to support it. A second construction bill would use about $400 million in cash and requires a simple majority.

Work on the infrastructure deal dates back to last year, when representatives from the Walz administration, the DFL-led House and then-GOP majority in the Senate ironed out a framework. Broader political fights doomed that construction package and many other bills in 2022.

This year, the bones of the old deal were resurrected. The plan has been renegotiated, and the scale has grown. But with Democrats now controlling both chambers, the borrowing measure is Republicans' primary point of leverage this session.

DFL legislators said they want this to be one of two rounds of infrastructure funding passed this year. Walz has suggested one $3.3 billion bill.

"I am very optimistic that we'll be able to do two. The unfinished business of 2022 and then move on to 2023," said DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park.

But she said if they aren't able to get enough Republican support to pass the $1.9 billion deal, "We just turn the page and say. 'The 2022 bill is not going to happen.' And we turn our attention to the 2023 bonding bill which will be the 'with or without you.'"

Senate Capital Investment Chair Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said Democrats would then shift to an all-cash package, which doesn't require a supermajority like borrowing bills. It would merge needs from the current bill with other projects proposed this year, Pappas said, and potentially total more than $3 billion.

But her House counterpart, Capital Investment Chair Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, was less certain that plan B would be entirely cash. They would make a second attempt to pass an infrastructure bill before the Legislature adjourns in May, he said, but whether that's made up only of dollars from the state's $17.5 billion projected budget surplus or also includes borrowing is "still up in the air."

Walz has said he wants a bipartisan deal that includes borrowing and cash.

In the Senate, seven Republicans would need to join all DFL members to pass a borrowing bill. Senate GOP Minority Leader Mark Johnson and Sen. Karin Housley, the ranking Republican on the Capital Investment Committee, both said they first want to see action on tax breaks.

Housley said Thursday she would prefer to slow down, pass a measure eliminating the tax on Social Security benefits, then finish work in April on an infrastructure deal that includes bonding. If the DFL sidesteps Republicans by shifting to an all cash measure, "That's a huge failure on their part," she said.

"To rush this through doesn't make any sense to any of our members," said Housley, of Stillwater.

But she also said infrastructure money is critical this session. She pointed to highways and intersections that see frequent crashes and stressed the need for a water system connection for some residents of Andover, where contaminated wells have forced them to rely on bottled water for a year and a half.

"This is dire for these people," Housley said.

Meanwhile, Pappas predicted that if the House approves the $1.9 billion deal on Monday, it would also make it through the Senate soon.

"If the House passes a bill on Monday, I think we're going to be good to go," Pappas said. "The Senate Republicans, once their House members have passed it, it's really hard for them not to vote for it. So many of them want the bill; they want their projects. They know it's the right thing to do for the state."

Urdahl, the House GOP's infrastructure point person, said some House Republicans may try to use the bonding bill to press for tax cuts. But he said that tactic has been used frequently over the years, "and it has not worked very often."

In the House, Lee said Thursday that he has been talking with Urdahl and with individual Republican members about projects in the bill that would affect their communities.

"At this moment, I don't know what they are going to do," Lee said. "But I am hopeful."