Lori Sturdevant
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"Bonding year." It's been hard since Sunday night to even think of that label without a sardonic snort.

"Bonding years" were what the Minnesota State Capitol crowd used to call the even-year legislative sessions that were instituted 50 years ago, in 1974. Job One in even-numbered years was supposed to be the authorization of public works financed by long-term bonds, which require the approval of a three-fifths supermajority in both the House and Senate.

Job One was left undone this year when the deadline for passing bills arrived at midnight Sunday. And though I'm lamenting inaction on a number of other potential lawmaking prizes (the Equal Rights Amendment's collapse really stings), it's the no-bonding bummer that had me reaching out to Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City.

For 20 of his 22 years in the state House, Urdahl has helped craft bonding bills. His assignment from his caucus was to put a Republican stamp on those bills. His personal goal was to get those bills passed on time and signed into law. He held that it's the duty of a state representative to maintain and improve the public property that meets public needs, throughout the entire state.

More than once, Urdahl's caucus assignment and his personal goal were in conflict. More than once, bonding bills negotiated with DFLers died before reaching the governor's desk, stopped by his fellow Republicans. It happened in 2004, 2016, 2022 and again this year. (In 2007, the bonding bill died on the governor's desk, felled by Tim Pawlenty's veto.)

Urdahl's disappointment about this year's outcome was evident as he bade farewell to his colleagues during Monday's customary round of retirement speeches.

"It's just not that much fun anymore," Urdahl, 74, a Minnesota history author and educator, confessed. Leaving legislative service now feels like "an escape," he said.

A few days earlier, amid packing boxes and memorabilia including photos of Abraham Lincoln (see: transcontinental railroad) and Dwight Eisenhower (see: interstate highway system), Urdahl told me how his bonding work changed through the years.

After the Tea Party election of 2010, the typical billion-dollar "bonding year" bills became increasingly difficult to sell to the small-government crowd in his caucus, he said. His task was complicated further when Republicans slipped into the minority in 2019. Since then, GOP leaders have been keen to use their party's bonding votes as leverage to work their will on issues unrelated to building projects.

That's what happened this year. Urdahl knew his hundreds of hours of work were likely to be for naught when GOP leaders announced on May 14 that they would insist on a steep price for bonding's requisite Republican votes.

Their demands: No ERA. No safe storage requirement for guns. No eligibility expansion of MinnesotaCare. Plus a few other stray items — none of which pertained to the wastewater treatment plants, roof replacements, bridge upgrades and similar projects traditionally included in an even-year bill.

No deal, replied DFL Speaker Melissa Hortman. To cave to such far-reaching demands would be to "forgo our values and what we ran on," she said at a news conference in the wee hours Monday.

Urdahl didn't fault Hortman for that decision. Rather, he told me, he objects to using a bill that's vitally important to Minnesota's well-being as a lever on unrelated matters. The health, safety, education and quality-of-life projects in the bonding bill deserve to rise or fall on their own merits, he argued. They should not be used as pawns in partisan chess games.

Urdahl has paid a price within his caucus for that thinking. "I am a center-right conservative," Urdahl said in his retirement speech. "That hasn't always been good enough for my fellow Republicans."

In eight of his 12 legislative elections, Urdahl faced an intraparty challenge, generally from the right. He would have had one this year, too, from Meeker County Commissioner Steve Schmitt. But that threat is not what pushed him into retirement, he insists. He's confident voters would have backed him, had he tried for one more term. Urdahl's chosen successor, Montevideo businessman Scott Van Binsbergen, won Republican endorsement on April 20.

That result at the District 16A GOP convention makes me think Urdahl could be wrong when he describes himself "one of the last Eisenhower Republicans."

To be sure, Eisenhower is out of vogue among Republicans now. In both character and policies, Ike was poles apart from the former president with whom today's Republicans are enthralled.

But in the next decade, Minnesota is going to be grappling with the physical demands of a changing climate and aging post-World War II infrastructure. It's likely to face increasing pleas from local governments for state help with infrastructure costs as a decline in commercial real estate values pushes residential property taxes into politically uncomfortable territory. It's going to need the economic stimulus that adequate infrastructure provides.

I think the highway-building president of the 1950s is due for fresh appreciation. And I know a retired history teacher and author who will be good at telling the Eisenhower story.

Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.