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Our View: Modest bonding bill a risk worth taking

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Borrowing perhaps billions of dollars is serious and risky enough in a normal session of the Minnesota Legislature. It’s even more uneasy in the middle of a pandemic-fueled global financial crisis.

But passing a bonding bill this session is a risk lawmakers must take for our state’s economic well-being and future and to help out ailing local governments statewide, Minnesota State Auditor Julie Blaha said in an exclusive interview with the News Tribune Opinion page.

“Bonding can increase jobs and improve infrastructure. But, of course, at a cost,” Blaha said by telephone Friday. “But the debt we take on gets the economy rolling. I think we’ve seen in the past … that healthy bonding bills help the economy get back on track. That is key. That is something that benefits the whole state. We’re going to need solutions that benefit all of us.”

Considering the benefits, Minnesotans can urge lawmakers to pass a bonding bill these final days of the 2020 session.

But considering also the risks already inherent with taking on new public debt and related to so much uncertainty over plummeting markets worldwide and fiscal and public-health instability, residents around the state can also insist on a more-moderate, more-responsible measure. Something that invests in and maintains water systems, public buildings and other spaces owned and shared by all of us. Something that doesn’t include niceties and wants this time like soccer fields and swimming pools; such things need to wait for now.

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So, “no” to the $2 billion-plus bonding proposals that have been floated by DFL Gov. Tim Walz and the DFL-majority House. And “no” as well to the Senate Republicans’ vow of no bonding bill at all until the governor drops the emergency powers he assumed in March to promptly, effectively, and appropriately deal with the coronavirus outbreak. Both can be considered just the opening of negotiations between the two parties.

With less than a week to go in the session, DFL and Republican lawmakers can find compromise somewhere in the middle. A bonding bill more in line with past plans for public construction projects of less than $1 billion can leave taxpayers feeling comfortable that necessary public investments are being met but that the spending isn’t reckless during difficult, uncertain days.

“How do you balance that out? … Local governments are telling us that the loss of revenue may hit them harder than direct COVID-19 costs,” Blaha said. “Getting people to work is going to be important and not just for the immediate future but long-term. Getting the economy rolling again is going to really help with that lost-revenue issue. …

“Let’s get the economy rolling,” she also said. “I think we have to take action. I think the best way to fix things is to act.”

It used to be there was only one reason for a session of the Minnesota Legislature during even-numbered years like this one: pass a bonding bill to keep up with the responsible maintenance of public amenities and shared public spaces. Not doing so this year wouldn’t just be unprecedented, according to Sen. Tom Bakk.

“The session will be a colossal failure if a bonding bill does not pass,” Bakk, DFL-Cook, said in a statement exclusively to the News Tribune Opinion page. “It’s the real work of the non-budget year. Everything else we consider this year is non-essential.”

Not everything. Among other important matters this session, lawmakers passed a $200 million emergency COVID-19 response fund. They’re considering additional funding for it as well as more spending oversight, among other bills that are pressing toward Monday’s end-of-session.

That doesn’t mean compromise can’t also still be found on a responsible, economy-boosting, and nonetheless reasonable and modest bonding bill — as risky right now as it may seem.

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Related Topics: OUR VIEWJULIE BLAHA
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