MANKATO — It came five months later than expected, but Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature have come to a compromise on a mammoth construction funding bill that will finance nearly $1.9 billion in projects across Minnesota.
The bill, which passed the House Wednesday and the Senate Thursday, directs money to riverbank stabilization in Mankato, water plants in Vernon Center and Waldorf, a recreation center in North Mankato, and the flood-proofing of a road serving Henderson.
“As I look through the bill, there’s some exciting stuff for the region in here,” said Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges.
The bill represented the last legislative lobbying push for Hentges before he retires next month after a long career in municipal government. Asked if he had lost hope that the two parties could come to agreement on the bill in the midst of a divisive election season, Hentges said he had.
“Yeah, three special sessions ago,” he said. “... The bonding bill has gotten to be a political football, a pawn in the overall governing process.”
Hentges wasn’t exaggerating. The bonding bill, so-named because the bulk of the funding comes from borrowing money through a bond sale, failed to pass during the regular legislative session that ended in May and remained stalled through four special sessions over the summer and fall.
The fifth special session, the last before the Nov. 3 general election, was the charm.
Because the bill involves borrowing, a 60% majority is required in both the House and Senate — something that provided leverage to outnumbered Republicans in the House. The Democratic majority in the House needed at least six votes from the GOP to reach the three-fifths threshold, and the Republicans didn’t budge through September.
That finally changed Wednesday on a 100-34 vote in the House, followed by a 63-3 tally in the Senate.
“Thank you so much for clean water for my little communities of Vernon Center and Waldorf,” said Sen. Julie Rosen on the Senate floor Thursday. “They are ecstatic.”
Vernon Center was a big winner with $7.98 million for a variety of water infrastructure projects including a refurbished water tower, new sewer and water pipes, and stormwater improvements. Waldorf received $858,000 for its crumbling water and sewer plants, which date back 72 years.
While those projects were fully funded, many others received just a portion of requested amounts as lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz, who is expected to quickly sign the bill, haggled over the amount of borrowing. The governor and the House proposed more than $2 billion among about $5 billion in requests. The Republican-controlled Senate finalized a bill in mid-May that was half that size.
In the end, Mankato saw its request pared by two-thirds. The city will receive $7.2 million for riverbank restoration and erosion control along the Minnesota River in Land of Memories Park and along Riverfront Park and the nearby sewage treatment plant. The original request totaled nearly $20 million and included the creation of a massive new wetland on Mankato’s south side to store, filter and slow the speed of snowmelt and rainwater draining from agricultural lands into the city’s ravine system.
The wetland project will commence with a $1.2 million state grant provided earlier this year, along with local sales tax proceeds. But without an appropriation from the bonding bill, it will now need to be finished in stages over several years, Hentges said. Plans to improve Riverfront Park and the Minnesota River Trail also will have to wait until alternative funding is found.
At Minnesota State University, the news was even more disappointing. MSU was hoping for $6.7 million to begin a $95 million reconstruction of Armstrong Hall, the university’s largest classroom building. The bill included nothing.
Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, said the absence of the MSU funding was his biggest disappointment, attributing it to negotiations that trimmed out most funding other than emergency projects.
“They were true necessities that had to get taken of,” Considine said.
The removal of numerous projects and the downsizing of others won the votes of Republicans and resulted in broad bipartisan support, particularly from south-central Minnesota lawmakers. Republicans and Democrats alike, with the exception of Republican Rep. Jeremy Munson of Lake Crystal, voted for the bill after a long House debate.
“It was a difficult nine hours, but it was really nice to get this stuff done,” Considine said.
The final bill included something of a surprise in the $2 million provided for North Mankato’s plan to renovate Caswell Park and add a large fieldhouse to the softball and soccer complex. Neither the Senate nor House bills under consideration in May included money for the project, although Walz included $10.5 million in his proposal.
North Mankato is looking to make $3 million in repairs and upgrades to the 34-year-old softball complex and build a $16.5 million fieldhouse for basketball, tennis, pickleball and volleyball. The downpayment in the bonding bill won’t come close to bringing the plans to fruition, but it will get the work started.
“The funding will provide needed improvements at the facility and complete the necessary design work for the future,” City Administrator John Harrenstein said in a written statement.
Another community celebrating the bill will be Henderson, which received $15.8 million to raise Highway 93 as much as 8 feet in some sections. The project will keep the oft-flooded roadway open even when Highway 19 — the other major entrance into the Sibley County town — is closed by Minnesota River flooding.
The Henderson request was a priority of Senate Republicans but had been left unfunded in the original House bill.
Another win for the Senate will also benefit Sibley County — $10 million to rehabilitate track west of Winthrop on the Minnesota Valley Regional Railroad, the county’s only railroad and one that was once so decrepit that a train derailed while standing still.
Construction of the next phase of improvements at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, a portion of the state hospital campus in St. Peter, were not funded, but the bill included nearly $1.8 million for design work on the project.
New Ulm received $300,000 for an amphitheater in German Park.
Overall, the bill provides $166 million for colleges and universities; $128 million for state parks, trails, dams, wetlands and other natural resource projects; $88 million for metro parks, trails and transit; $27 million for pollution prevention and cleanup; $24 million for National Guard armories; $44 million for prisons; and $50 million for law enforcement and police training facilities.
Grants to local governments — for everything from community centers to sewer projects — totaled $269 million. And $100 million went to a fund that will support future affordable housing projects.
Transportation was a major focus, with nearly $700 million for roads, bridges and rail projects.
Along with the construction projects, lawmakers tacked on some supplemental spending and tax policy provisions, including a pay increase for personal care attendants and tax conformity provisions sought by farmers and business owners.
Free Press staff writer Trey Mewes contributed to this story.