Bonding bill at risk this year

Parks and trails advocates have girded themselves for disappointment this session of the Minnesota Legislature, with bonding proposals from both the governor and the Legislature considerably below the opportunities and the needs. Few, however, have expected that there be no bonding bill this year, yet now that seems a real possibility.

The House has two bonding bills: the $280 million omnibus bonding bill (HF2622) and a $220 million bonding bill for restoration of the state Capitol building. The Senate has a $496 million bonding bill, with $25 million for the state Capitol included in that.

But by the end of last week, when legislators went into a 10-day spring break, neither bonding bill had been heard on the floor and Republican leaders said they weren’t sure a bonding bill would come out of this session.

The Minnesota Constitution requires that bonding bills must first pass the House, where 81 votes are required for a super majority. It’s not clear that there will be enough votes to pass the House bill, according to Rep. Larry Howes (R-Walker), the committee chair and sponsor of the House Omnibus Bonding Bill. He has said that some Republicans don’t want any bonding bill—he mentioned that at the Parks & Trails Council’s Day on the Hill—and he believes a number of DFLers will vote against the bonding bill as being too small. Recently, he said the chances of a bonding bill being enacted in 2012 are “50-50.” Sen. David Senjem (R-Rochester), the Senate majority leader, put together the Senate bill, but he, too, has said that a number of Republican senators do not feel a bonding bill is needed this year.

The House Omnibus Bonding Bill includes $7 million to the Department of Natural Resources for state parks and trails renewal and development, “for renewal, modification, replacement or development of buildings and recreational infrastructure in state parks, state recreation areas, state trails, small craft harbors and marinas, fishing pier sites and state forests.” Another $3 million is for renovation of DNR facilities, which could include buildings in state parks and trails. There’s no bonding provided for land acquisition. The total bonding for the DNR in the House bill is $21.409 million. The bill also includes $5 million to the Metropolitan Council for capital improvements and land acquisition for Metropolitan Regional Parks.

The Senate Omnibus Bonding Bill (SF2577) provides $5 million for parks and trails renewal and development for buildings and recreational infrastructure. Five state trails are listed in the bill: Luce Line, Whitewater Country Trail Loop, Camp Ripley Trail, Stagecoach Trail and Shooting Star Trail. The Department of Natural Resources commissioner can allocate money from one of the designated trails to another trail project, if the named project isn’t ready to proceed. The Senate bill also includes $5 million for the development of Lake Vermilion State Park. In a 2008 bonding bill, $2.4 million was appropriated to acquire land within the Greenleaf Lake State Recreation Area. This year’s Senate bill changes the language of that appropriation, allowing the DNR to use that money to acquire in-holdings within other state park boundaries instead. The bill also includes $1 million to the Metropolitan Council for Metropolitan Regional Parks.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding recommendations included just $5 million for state parks and trails development and $5 million for the Metropolitan Council, plus $3 million for DNR asset preservation.

What happens next?

Even-numbered years are traditionally the bonding years of the biennium, but it’s possible that there will be no bonding this year. Odd-numbered years traditionally do not include bonding bills, but as part of the negotiated agreement that ended a 20-day government shutdown in 2011, Gov. Dayton and legislators agreed to  $455 in bonding, including $17 million for natural resources asset preservation, $8 million for beginning development of Lake Vermilion State Park, $5.8 million for state trail acquisition and development and $5 million for capital improvements for Metro regional parks and trails. When the session began this January, it was clear that a number of legislators felt the $455 million in bonding for 2011 should be factored into the amount for 2012, so that the total amount for the two years would be about $1 billion, a fairly typical amount. In the past couple of weeks, however, it has become clear that even the “typical” $1 billion may be too much for some legislators.

If the bonding bills pass the House and Senate:

Discussions about bonding will resume in both chambers when the Legislature comes back into session next week. Currently, there are many differences between the two bills, from the total amount to whether parks and trails are specifically identified for funding or not. If both chambers pass an omnibus bonding bill, the differences would need to be worked out in a conference committee. The Senate bill, overall, is somewhat more generous than the House bill, but a number of House members are already unhappy about the amount of the bill in that chamber, so ratcheting it upward would be an even harder sell.

If the bonding bill does not pass one or both of the chambers:

Since 2013 is not a “bonding year,” bonding proposals may have to wait until 2014. Every legislator is up for re-election this fall, however. Several veteran legislators already have left, or have announced that they will not run for re-election. Redistricting has placed a number of legislators in districts that are quite different from what they have been representing—and a few will have to decide whether to run against another incumbent who is now in the same district. In short, there may be a significant number of new legislators in 2013, who may be more—or less—interested in bonding for public projects.

In the meantime, projects that are ready to proceed likely will have to wait. This may mean increased costs, if land and labor are more expensive. In a few cases—such as the Southwest light rail transit—matching funds could be lost if the legislature fails to act now.

Legislative observers have learned that it’s not over until it is over (and sometimes not even then); it is possible that in final negotiations between the governor’s office and the Legislature that some bonding projects could be on the table. Even in that case, however, the restoration of the Capitol and even a new stadium for the Vikings may get more focus than parks and trails projects.