Millions of dollars in Iron Range infrastructure projects were included in the long-awaited bonding bill that passed the Minnesota House late Wednesday night after months of being bogged down in political turmoil over the governor’s pandemic response.
The $1.8 billion package of construction projects is the largest bonding effort put forward by the state, which passed the Senate on Thursday and greenlighted several local infrastructure projects that lawmakers and labor unions point to as job creators across the state.
Funding for the bill is mostly by the sale of state bonds and some projects could take years to complete. Still, the impacts of the bill could be seen enough on the Iron Range, where supplemental budget funding was included to keep the Togo correctional facility open after it was put on the chopping block by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
State Rep. Julie Sandstede of Hibbing and Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm led the charge to save the Togo facility and its Challenge Incarceration Program, a heralded part of the prison that aimed to help offenders turn their lives around through six-month voluntary boot camp that includes chemical dependency treatment, physical training, transition planning and more.
Had Togo closed, the program would have also fallen to the wayside.
“The CIP is an example of something that is working well in our state government, and its success saves the state money due to reduced recidivism,” Sandstede said in a statement Wednesday night. “When you have a program that is as successful as the Challenge Incarceration Program, we need to continue our investments so the approach can be expanded, not eliminated.”
The $7.5 million included in the bonding bill for Togo and the Willow River Correctional Facility would save about 100 jobs, according to a press release from Tomassoni’s office. He had called on Gov. Tim Walz last month to call a special session “to do whatever it takes to keep them.”
Tomassoni noted Wednesday night that “now we’ve found the money to keep them open and operating, saving these jobs and keeping these successful rehabilitation programs in place.”
Other notable projects included in the bill were the regional public safety center for Virginia, public building renovations in Eveleth, the East Mesabi Joint Water System, infrastructure projects for the Hibbing Mine View, wastewater treatment in Nashwauk and Floodwood, funding for Lake Vermilion/Soudan Underground Mine State Park and the Silver Bay Veterans Home, among others.
“Investments like these not only help make regions like ours such an excellent place to live and visit, but will create some good paying construction jobs at a time when too many folks are out of work,” said Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls, in a statement. “It’s no secret we’re going through some difficult times, and this bill will help accelerate our economic recovery.”
The bonding bill has been a particular source of drama in a Minnesota Legislature not unfamiliar to theatrics. Earlier this year, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt tied his Republican caucus votes — 15 were needed to suspend the rules and vote on the bonding bill, with six GOP representatives needed for it to clear the House — to Walz, a Democrat, ending his emergency powers that stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic response.
At the time, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka publicly criticized the House GOP’s approach, but over time and as coronavirus restrictions were continuously renewed, the party meshed back into one voice calling for Walz to end his emergency powers, despite the president and 49 of 50 states retaining theirs. Senate Republicans on multiple occasions voted to remove the emergency designation and twice voted not to confirm two Walz cabinet appointees — they were joined by Tomassoni and Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook, both Democrats, in removing Steve Kelley as the Department of Commerce commissioner.
The stance drew sharp rebukes of Daudt and the party from labor unions, some of which endorsed GOP candidates running for re-election, for holding up construction jobs over a political turf war during the pandemic.
On Wednesday, 25 House Republicans voted to pass the bill, including Rep. Sandy Layman of Cohasset.
The Senate passed the bill Thursday, less than 20 days before the Nov. 3 election, to send it to Walz, who is expected to sign the bill and end its dramatic path.
“Our public infrastructure needs some urgent improvements and these investments will help our communities deliver basic expectations like clean water and safe roads,” said Rep. Dave Lislegard of Aurora, in a statement. “This bill is an example of what’s possible when we work together across the aisle at the Capitol, and when business and labor come together to set aside politics and do what’s right for our state.”