Merging is something drivers do when, ideally, they get up to speed and enter a freeway or interstate.
In Capitol-speak, merging is what happened Wednesday to the House bill that would fund road and bridge improvements.
The $225 million package in increased current biennial transportation spending is part of a larger bill that also now includes an additional $400 million for pensions, $76.9 million for funding for state government, and nearly $43.9 million for veterans and military affairs spending.
Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls), the bill sponsor, said highlights of HF1683 include an $80 million state match to receive a portion of “historic” federal funding passed last year, funding to restore the Northern Lights Express passenger rail service between Duluth and Minneapolis, and focus on highway and traffic safety across the state.
“This bill is comprehensive, it covers all areas of the state, it covers all modes of transportation. We have important safety enhancements, we address mobility, we address economic development potential that transportation has,” he said. “With transportation being the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions we address the climate crisis. Transportation also needs to be looked at through an equity lens. We continue what we did on that work last year, really looking at the equity issues, particularly with our transit and pedestrian safety provisions.”
Among concerns raised by Republicans was spending priorities.
Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake) noted the bill calls for $51 million for the Northern Lights Express, but just $4 million for township roads and zero for the Corridors of Commerce program, designed to provide additional highway capacity to help improve movement of freight and reduce barriers to commerce.
“So we have no money for the Corridors of Commerce, we have the (passenger) rail to Duluth that no one’s going to ride, and we have $4 million for all those township roads which is literally pennies per mile,” she said.
Hornstein said the passenger rail project includes “a lot” of enhancements to the freight corridor. “I would like to fund townships more; however, they do receive some support from our existing transportation funding through the Highway User Trust Distribution Fund. Small cities do not; therefore, we have a position for small cities that is significant in this bill and ongoing.”
He said the bill has “significant policy enhancement” for the Corridors of Commerce program that includes eligibility, funding and selection. “The Corridors of Commerce program is successful, but needs to be updated — an initiative that is bipartisan in nature,” Hornstein said. The program also received bonding dollars last year.
Based off HF4571, an amendment was added that, in part, would establish a one-chance, one-year reintegration driver’s license for persons incarcerated for at least 180 days and whose driver’s license was suspended or revoked for incidents before the incarceration. When released, the individual could apply for a reintegration license and, if they don’t commit any violations for a year, the person could apply for full reinstatement of driving privileges.
The Nelson-sponsored bill, as amended, checks in at just under $77 million in new spending, with nearly two-thirds of it targeted to information technology updates and modernizations.
“With some of the stuff that’s going on now, that’s something we need to constantly invest in,” Nelson said.
Among its policy provisions, the bill would allow the governor to declare a peacetime emergency for a cyberattack on the state's information and telecommunications technology infrastructure, systems or services; designate Juneteenth, June 19, as a state holiday; create a commission charged with designing a new state flag and seal; and modify and expand requirements related to the use of absentee ballot drop boxes.
Rep. Jim Nash (R-Waconia) sees plenty of positives in the bill; however, the negatives outweigh the good.
For example, he said many election provisions go against a longstanding tradition of election changes being bipartisan, a change he presumes came from DFL leadership. “If the provisions that you have included in this bill that have opposition by our party are so fantastic, put ‘em on the floor … say you’re going to run this as a solo bill and do it instead of layering it into an omnibus bill and make it have a little extra protection as it flies through things.”
An amendment successfully offered by Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville) edits language requiring absentee ballot applications distributed by committees and private organizations to include language that the application is not an official ballot.
Veterans and Military Affairs
Sponsored by Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls), HF4324, including a largely technical amendment, would appropriate a bit more than $41 million in current biennial funding to the Department of Veterans Affairs and nearly $2.87 million for the Department of Military Affairs.
“Four years ago when I was given the privilege of chairing the veterans committee, I made it my goal to address veteran homelessness and veteran suicides. If you take a look at this bill, we’re going to go a long ways in the state of Minnesota to accomplish that goal and lead the nation in these type of programs,” Ecklund said.
New 2022-23 biennial spending would include $24.9 million of onetime spending for service bonuses to Post-9/11 veterans and Gold Star families; $8 million to the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans to provide assistance to veterans, former service members and their families who are homeless or in danger of homelessness; $2.125 million to address the problem of death by suicide among veterans in Minnesota; and $2 million for National Guard enlistment/reenlistment bonuses.
“Thanks for putting together a good bill,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington).
Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown) sponsors HF4306, as amended, that includes a onetime $370 million appropriation to the eight statewide pension plans to be allocated among the plans based on market value of assets for each plan.
The bill would also increase annual direct state aid to the PERA Police and Fire Plan ($9 million to $13.5 million), MSRS Judges Plan ($6 million to $9 million) and St. Paul Teachers Plan ($5 million to $7.5 million).
The actuarial assumption for investment rate of return would drop from 7.5% to 7%.
“It’s a more realistic look at the return on the funds. It’s what the advisors, actuaries, are all saying that 7.5% is too high,” Nelson said. “… If we don’t get that 7.5%, we’re not having to dip in and put more into these funds out of the General Fund. Hopefully, they can self-sustain.”
The Senate’s omnibus state government, transportation and veterans policy and supplemental appropriations bill, SF3975, awaits action by the full Senate. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake) is the sponsor.