MOORHEAD — Politics in the Minnesota Legislature are getting in the way of Moorhead's critical 11th Street North underpass, along with dozens of other projects around the state dependent on lawmakers passing a $1.8 billion bonding bill.
Surprising? No. Frustrating? You bet.
Lawmakers adjourned from a second special session in St. Paul last week without finding agreement on a bonding bill. The bill funding infrastructure projects in every corner of the state has support from DFL Gov. Tim Walz, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Democrats in the DFL-controlled House.
But since bonding requires a 60% supermajority vote to pass, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt withheld needed GOP votes to kill the bill. He wants Walz to relinquish the peacetime emergency powers the governor took at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a sticking point for partisan Republicans.
So Moorhead waits and hopes a bonding bill will pass in an expected third special session coming in August.
But, as the city's governmental affairs director says, you never know.
"The politics of this are beyond what any of us can predict," Lisa Bode said Friday, July 24.
The proposed project is a $92.7 million grade separation that would run, north to south, from First Ave. to Main Ave. and go under two sets of BNSF railroad tracks. It would relieve traffic congestion when trains are passing through, allow emergency vehicles easier access to all parts of the city and, officals hope, spur more downtown development.
Moorhead has requested $62 million in bonding money. BNSF would cover $3.7 million, the city would provide $3 million and Clay County $500,000.
Moorhead has requested a federal grant of $25 million to cover the balance. The city is confident of receiving the federal grant, Bode said, but will work with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to cover the gap if it doesn't.
"The underpass funding is a high priority of Gov. Walz, and railroad improvement funding is included in both the House and Senate versions of the bonding bill," Bode said. "That gives me hope that if there is a bonding bill, we will get the funding."
That's why the House passing a bonding bill is so important. State Sen. Kent Eken, a DFLer who represents Moorhead, said the infrastructure bill will pass the Republican-controlled Senate and be signed by Walz if it gets past Daudt and House Republicans. Bonding bills must start in the House to go forward
"It's a pretty robust bonding bill considering the circumstances," Eken said. "It's major. It'd be a real shame, a tragedy, if it doesn't get passed."
There are several other local projects expected to be covered by a bonding bill, including a long-awaited Clay County waste transfer station, as well as dozens around the state. Generally, legislators in both parties support bonding bills because they provide state money for local projects and create jobs. They are good politics.
But Daudt's insistence on Walz giving up his emergency powers endangers this year's bill. If Republicans again refuse to pass a bonding bill in August, chances of one getting through the Legislature this year shrink significantly. With an election coming up in November and every legislative seat up for grabs, the politics of passing anything become more complicated even if there are additional special sessions.
"Your guess is as good as mine on bonding," Rep. Ben Lien of Moorhead said. "We might be doing this for the rest of the year."
Bonding bills are usually only handled in even years, so Moorhead's underpass might be put on the back-burner until 2022.
"We're running out of time. Basically, we're already missing out on this year's construction season and if something doesn't get done in August things become really hard," Eken said. "This is a pretty important bill. And this particular one is a good one. It needs to pass."