March 05, 2019 07:05 PM
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed his first two bills Tuesday — one that pays for fixes to the balky state vehicle registration system and one that provides $102 million for public construction projects statewide.
The Democratic governor said at the signing ceremony that the bipartisan support for the bills represented the "hard work of governance." He paid tribute to lawmakers from both parties who helped reach the compromises. And he called the effort "a real run, but one with some training wheels on it" for how they could reach deals to end the legislative session by the May 20 deadline.
"We came to a compromise in the best interest of Minnesota taxpayers and Minnesota citizens," Walz said. "We compromised and provided services across the breadth of the state, and we did so in a manner that's befitting to bipartisan common decency."
The bills marked the first "early wins" of the session, a goal set by the governor and legislative leaders of passing less-contentious legislation early to smooth the way for compromises later on over more difficult issues such as taxes and spending. The hope is for better working relationships among the new governor, the new House Democratic majority and Republicans who control the Senate. That would contrast the rancor that marred relations between the Republican legislative majorities and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in the 2017 and 2018 sessions.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the bills Walz signed show that the only Legislature in the United States at the moment where different parties control the House and Senate can function well.
The vehicle registration bill contains $13.3 million, including $5.7 million to keep contractors at work on fixing the MNLARS system, which has been a headache for vehicle buyers, sellers and owners since it went live in 2017.
Separate legislation is advancing to provide about $10 million to the deputy registrars around the state that issue license plates and tabs and transfer vehicle titles, who've had to absorb the costs of trying to make the system work.
"This is the second year coming here begging for your help in regards to the MNLARS massacre," deputy registrar Kellie Davison of Prior Lake testified before the Senate Transportation Committee. "DVS (Driver and Vehicle Services) and MNIT keep getting emergency funds continually for staff and MNLARS, but the deputies have gotten no help."
Davison says she's lost $7,650 per week with about 900 faulty transactions a week due to the MNLARS problems. She says she's taken money from her retirement accounts and her life insurance policies to keep paying employees.
Senators were sympathetic and said help will be on the way.
"I do appreciate the fact that we've gotta get some money out the door to the deputy registrars," Sen. Scott Newman, (R-Hutchinson) told the deputy registrars. "I really do understand that."
The $102.3 million public works borrowing bill will fund environmental and infrastructure projects around the state. It includes money to begin the cleanup of a landfill in Andover that's leaking hazardous chemicals. It also makes technical changes to fix flawed bill language from the 2018 session that has held up the expansions of U.S. Highway 14 from Owatonna to Dodge Center in southeastern Minnesota and Minnesota Highway 23 from New London to Paynesville in west-central Minnesota.
Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman called the borrowing bill a "correction" to action taken in the final hours last session.
Republicans who then controlled both chambers decided to finance the projects with money from an environmental trust fund that uses state lottery proceeds. The projects normally have been part of the main "bonding bill" of the session, which is financed through the state's general fund, but tapping the trust fund held down the price tag on the bigger bonding bill.
Several environmental and conservation groups sued, saying the maneuver amounted to an illegal raid on a trust fund that's not supposed to be used that way. The lawsuit held up the affected projects. Now that the projects will be funded the normal way, legislative leaders expect the case will be resolved.
"It was really an error that those important projects were put in jeopardy by being funded through ... a source that was never intended to be a source for bonding," Hortman said.
Updated: March 05, 2019 07:05 PM
Created: March 05, 2019 04:48 PM
(Copyright 2019 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)