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Special session renews hopes for those seeking state money

MINNEAPOLIS — The city of Bemidji has a problem: firefighter training that used so-called “forever chemicals” has left the city’s water supply so contaminated that it needs a new water treatment facility to make water safer for its 15,000 residents.

City officials are seeking state funding for the $16.5 million project, and crossing their fingers that a bonding deal that includes the facility can be struck in next week’s special legislative session. Whether they get the money or not, they have to move ahead.

“We’re anxious right now because we need to do this water treatment facility and we could not receive state assistance,” City Manager Nate Mathews said. “We don’t have a choice but to provide clean drinking water to our residents.”

The water treatment facility is one of more than $5 billion in infrastructure funding requests from stakeholders statewide that face uncertainty as a capital investment bill remains undone. Despite coronavirus relief and policing reform legislation shouldering aside attention to bonding during the regular and special sessions, some lawmakers say they’re optimistic they can deliver an infrastructure package next week.

“Most of us couldn’t say ‘coronavirus’ going into the session,” said GOP state Sen. Dave Senjem. “The whole legislative session has changed from what it might normally be — the focus is much different.”

Senjem, chairman of the capital investment committee, said work with committee members slowed considerably as the legislative process moved online to mitigate the spread of coronavirus at the Capitol.

“While that may be easy enough, it doesn’t really afford the kind of conversations you need to have to make decisions on almost anything (and) I would say in this case especially a bonding bill,” he said.

A bonding bill requires a three-fifths majority in both chambers to pass, and disagreements on the size of the bill contributed to the impasse. With an election later this year, lawmakers also have to consider how decisions can help or hurt them politically.

About a week after the regular session ended, George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police, sparking protests and unrest worldwide. The subsequent calls for policing reform dominated the June special session, leaving infrastructure projects in limbo.

In Red Wing, city officials requested $10.5 million to complete a rail grade separation project for a busy four-lane roadway that intersects the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

Sturgeon Lake Road is the only public access point for tribal lands of the Prairie Island Indian Community, Xcel Energy’s Nuclear Generating Plant and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lock & Dam No. 3. Red Wing Mayor Sean Dowse said the road is a major public safety concern.

“You can imagine when emergency vehicles are coming from Red Wing to Prairie Island and if they encounter a train … there’s going to be delays of vital services,” he said. “It just creates a barrier to emergency responders so we really want to get this done.”

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which serves more than 350,000 students, requested $271.2 million for building maintenance and other campus-specific projects.

“Taking care of the infrastructure at our colleges and universities is very important for our students as well as the communities we serve,” Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra, said in a statement. “A bonding bill should be on the ‘must do’ list in a special session.”

On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz convened the Legislature for a special session beginning Monday. Though Republican lawmakers in the House threatened to use a bonding bill as leverage to eliminate Walz’s peacetime emergency powers, House and Senate leadership have agreed upon a $1.35 billion bonding bill they hope to bring to the governor’s desk by the end of the session.

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent said she thinks $1.35 billion isn’t enough and the state missing a “huge opportunity to be more ambitious.” But she said a bonding bill, as well as addressing policing reform and the economic fallout of COVID-19, remain a priority this special session.