As lawmakers closed in on their Monday midnight deadline to draw the Minnesota legislative session to a close, the status of many Northland requests remained uncertain.
"At this point, I think it's safe to say that everything is still in play," said Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, Monday afternoon.
But Duluth Mayor Emily Larson remained upbeat, saying: "I think we are well positioned for many of our priorities and have done a ton of work this session in communicating our story and our needs and our partnerships. So today is really about continuing to make sure that the right people have that information as they go into the final conference committees."
Duluth's request for authority to charge an additional half-percent sales tax was answered in both the House and Senate tax bills, but Larson said a conference committee still needs "to reconvene to work out a few remaining details on several different elements of their bills, and the sales tax is one of them."
In November 2017, more than 75 percent of Duluth's participating voters cast ballots in support of a higher local sales tax, with the proceeds - an estimated $7 million per year - dedicated to fund street improvements. However, the Minnesota Legislature, must sign off on the local tax increase if it is to take effect.
The proposed sales tax failed to garner sufficient support last year, but Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, expressed optimism the request will be granted this time around.
"I think we're going to get the half-percent sales tax," she said. "There's 80 percent agreement on the tax bill."
Simonson stressed that the passage of a sales tax can't be taken for granted, however.
"Because it's in conference committee, everything has to be adopted by the committee. So, it's in play, but it has not been adopted yet. And the reason is because it's somewhat tied to the Vision Northland project - if we do that project - which is very much in play at this point," he said, referring a Duluth's request for a $164 million investement in public infrastructure to support the expansion of its downtown medical district.
Larson said funding for the medical district has been included in the House version of the tax bill but not the Senate version yet.
"It has been written up as an amendment that's ready to be offered," she said. "So it's in a good position to continue to move forward for signing. But it's not as laid out in the Senate version as it is in the House."
Simonson said he's waiting for the right moment to introduce the amendment.
"When this goes in, it will be one of the very last things to go in," he said. "I think we've tried to keep it out of the fray where it could be used as trade bait or leverage for something else."
"A lot of work has been done, trying to solidify support, and I think we're there. We've just got to play this process out and see how it ends," Simonson said.
On the House side, Schultz said funding for the medical district remains uncertain, as well.
"We're hoping we can get that in and find some additional revenue. I had some ideas, and hopefully the chair of the tax committee can get those into the bill," she said.
Simonson said the initial $164 million medical district proposal probably will need to be greatly modified.
"We've been negotiating back and forth on this the whole session, and we have really whittled it down. Right now I think it's just under $100 million," he said. "This is divided government and we have to work across the aisle."
Under the terms of an agreement between Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders, bills were to be finalized by conference committees Monday, theoretically setting the stage for a special session to be called on Thursday to wrap up work.
Duluth also has made several funding requests it would like to see included in a bonding bill.
Simonson said he enters the final stretch with modest expectations, however.
"Based on the framework of the deal, a $440 million bonding bill was agreed to. That would be the maximum, so that doesn't leave a lot of room. ... So I wouldn't want to tell you there's a lot of hope for a lot of our local projects, but hopefully there's maybe room for one or two," he said.
Any successful bonding bill will need to garner the support of three-fifths of lawmakers, meaning that bipartisan support will be required.
Larson said a request for a $2 million forgivable loan to help Verso diversify its recycled product mix appears to be moving forward in a jobs omnibus bill. The funding could help preserve 225 jobs at the Duluth mill.
"My understanding is that the Verso element is ready to move forward and be passed," she said.
News Tribune reporter Brooks Johnson contributed to this article.