Evan Ramstad
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House Speaker Melissa Hortman said I used too big of a brush when I tarred the Legislature a couple of weeks ago for not getting a bonding bill done this spring.

It takes a three-fifths vote for the state to borrow money, and Democrats' majority in the Legislature isn't that big.

"It's a very unusual thing for somebody to have a majority that large, right? So the minority determines whether there will or won't be a bill," Hortman said last week.

One of her Republican counterparts, Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, put the onus right back on Democrats.

"We were trying to find a structure for this and Democrats' own actions shut that opportunity down," he said in a separate interview last week. "We'd given many good-faith, legitimate offers to the Democrats and they never once came with a counteroffer that was anything more than just thumbing their nose at us."

There's no net profit figure in government, no bottom line that tells interested parties whether they're getting their money's worth.

Some Minnesota state agencies create a modicum of accountability with "dashboards" on their websites that display metrics about things they oversee. Most Minnesotans, however, look at government performance by the simpler notion of whether things are getting done.

When the bonding bill didn't get done this year, I saw it as a caution signal on government performance, perhaps even a sign that some of the extreme rhetoric and maneuvering that has brought Congress to a standstill was showing up in St. Paul.

Hortman and Johnson told me they see some extremism taking hold in the Legislature — though in each other's parties rather than their own.

"I think Leader Demuth and Leader Johnson were interested in getting that [bonding bill] done," Hortman said, referring also to House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth. "I'm just not sure the far right element of their caucus would let them."

Johnson said, "They are starting to get that [Washington] infection into the elites on the Democratic side. I know that sounds really biased, but when they're controlling the entire agenda, they have the opportunity to make compromises."

Accountability in St. Paul is having a moment of reckoning. Earlier this month, the Office of the Legislative Auditor harshly criticized the state's oversight of the Feeding the Future nonprofit and the distribution of COVID-related frontline worker bonus checks.

"State agencies don't necessarily approach their work with an oversight and a regulatory mindset," Legislative Auditor Judy Randall told a bipartisan commission of lawmakers when she presented those findings.

People in those agencies, in other words, are not doing their job.

She blamed that in part on ideas and jargon from business settings. The Minnesota Department of Education, which had oversight of the Feeding the Future organization, referred to it as a "client" rather than a "grantee," Randall noted.

Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, in a news conference at the State Capitol last month.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, in a news conference at the State Capitol last month.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

All was looking good for a bonding bill this session until mid-April, when a Democratic senator was arrested for allegedly breaking into her stepmother's home and charged. Until then, the four legislative leaders were getting along "like in a buddy cop movie," Hortman said.

The arrest changed the power dynamic in the Senate, where Democrats had a mere one-seat majority. "Everything was so good until that alleged burglary," Hortman said.

The pattern in the Legislature is that it creates a budget in odd years and a capital spending measure, or bonding bill, in even ones. As I noted two weeks ago, legislators did approve a bond measure last year, and it was a large one covering $2.6 billion in capital projects. That came after the 2021-22 Legislature ended its two-year period with no bonding bill.

Technically, that leaves the state with just one bonding measure in four years and out of sync with its spending cycle. State agencies, universities and towns were expecting lawmakers to approve about $900 million in more bonds for capital projects this year.

Two weeks ago, I cited some municipal leaders discussing the effect of the delay on their particular projects. On a statewide level, however, the delay may not have much practical effect, particularly if next year's legislators decide to pass a bonding bill.

One way to level out the state's capital spending would be to get rid of the three-fifths vote requirement on borrowing measures. In that case, the bond market and voters would act as the main limiters on Minnesota's capital spending.

That would require a change in the state constitution. Hortman said it's an idea that belongs in a discussion with other potential reforms to state government, such as whether to have a full-time Legislature and whether to ban legislators from becoming lobbyists.

Johnson gave a solid argument for keeping the three-fifths vote requirement, saying it forces the majority party to include projects championed by the minority party.

"If you lower the threshold and you are the party in control, you get everything, you don't have to compromise on anything. The idea of that scares me quite a bit," he said.