Funding for Highway 12 fizzles

Last-minute legislative chaos leaves $900 million bonding bill in limbo

By Sean Miner
[email protected]

The last minutes of the Minnesota Legislature’s 2016 session, just before midnight on May 22, were a scene of chaos. Debates on a bonding bill, transportation bill and other measures continued in both chambers well into the 11th hour.

In the end, state legislators ended up with less than they or their constituents hoped. The bonding bill, which contained some $15 million in funding for several crucial safety improvements on Highway 12, was among the legislation left on the floor.

“We’re extremely disappointed,” said Wayzata Police Chief Mike Risvold. “It’s disappointing that other business seemed to trump public safety.”

With a fatal crash rate roughly double that of comparable highways statewide, according to a MnDOT safety audit completed last summer, Highway 12 has been a focal point for public safety and legislative officials in the area for years.

Gary Kroells, head of the Highway 12 Safety Coalition and director of West Hennepin Public Safety, expressed his displeasure at the setback in a Facebook post hours after the session expired.

“I…am very disappointed and frustrated that an agreement could not be reached to protect the lives of people traveling on Highway 12 each and every day,” wrote Kroells. “Let’s hope another person doesn’t need to die on Highway 12 to get the funding needed to save lives.

“A special session will need to be called by Governor Dayton,” ends the post.

Special session hopes

That special session is the last hope for state funding in the near future. As of press time, Dayton was non-committal to calling a special session, stating that he needed to review the budget bills that had been passed before the end of the session.

“We’re just hoping that something gets done, whether it be a special session or MnDOT having it in their means to help us,” said Orono Police Chief Correy Farniok. “It wouldn’t be as quick as the bonding bill, but we can at least get it on the schedule to have something on-site.”

Much of the work of the Highway 12 Safety Coalition has centered around rallying politicians to the cause. Public safety officials noted that this work wasn’t over.

“I prefer to do more than cross my fingers,” said Risvold. “I prefer to be proactive and do as much as we can to encourage a special session.”

Risvold praised the efforts of many who have been involved in the coalition’s efforts, including family members of those who have died in crashes on the thoroughfare.

“What they have been doing proactively to keep this message alive — every time I see any of these people, I can see the pain in their faces,” said Risvold. “We want to do whatever we can to improve the safety of that road.”

Kroells agreed.

“We’re hoping that the governor calls a special session, to get the Republicans and Democrats together to do what’s necessary for the citizens of Minnesota,” he said. “I think that traffic congestion is trumping traffic safety — how many millions of dollars are we spending in the metro to add a lane here or there so people can get to work faster?”

“They need help out there.”

Though frustrated with legislators’ failure to pass the bonding bill, Kroells pointed out that the measures for Highway 12 had enjoyed bipartisan support, supplying some hope in the face of this setback.

“I don’t think anyone disputes the fact that it’s needed,” said Kroells. “Everybody looks at it and says, ‘They need help out there.’”

Legislators representing the area, including Sen. David Osmek (R-Mound) and Rep. Jerry Hertaus (R-Greenfield), have heeded the calls of their constituents with regard to highway safety improvements. Reached for comment on the final results of the 2016 session, each expressed disappointment — not to mention a few heated words for their Democratic counterparts.

The kerfuffle in the last minutes of session was caused by a long-standing disagreement between the parties on inclusion of funding for the Southwest Light Rail Line in the bonding bill. That impasse, coupled with a final half-hour that has been characterized as everything from a series of miscommunications to a fit of partisan anger, is what left the bill unpassed when the clock struck midnight.

“It was a compromise,” said Osmek of the bill the House sent over, some 15 minutes before midnight. “Even with the fraud [SWLRT] amendment, I voted for that bill, because the House was never going to accept it, and they would have amended it back out again.”

However, by the time that amended bill was voted on, at 15 minutes to midnight, the House had adjourned. Democrats have called that adjournment premature, and Republicans have had choice words for the inclusion of the SWLRT amendment.

“This was most unfortunate that the Senate decided to do what they did in the very last minutes of the session,” said Hertaus, noting that without the last-minute amendment, “it could have been passed.”

With tempers still abating from the chaotic end to session, lawmakers are looking at the road ahead.

“Although there’s a lot of anger right now, I’m optimistic that the governor will call a special session after the holiday weekend,” said Hertaus.

Osmek agreed, suggesting that the bonding bill supplied by the House should be easily passable in a special session.

“If there is a special session, and the House bill is the bonding bill, I will be the first one with a green light on the board to support it,” Osmek said.

He pointed out that, in the event Dayton chooses not to hold a special session, there might be other options on the table.

“A special session is one option — the other option is, I want Commissioner [Charles] Zelle and the advocates from Highway 12 to come to my office and see, ‘If there is no special session, what can we do in the interim to reposition finances from MnDOT to get this project moving forward?’” said Osmek.

Hertaus, like Risvold, lauded the efforts of Highway 12 safety advocates in pushing for state funding.

“I thank everybody who has invested so much time in this, coming down to the capitol and testifying, doing all that we can do, staying united in the coalition,” said Hertaus. “Although this is disappointing, we shall not be discouraged. We’ll keep on it and get this done.”

The road ahead

For the time being, work on the part of public safety departments and others will continue to make the road as safe as it can be without the much-needed improvements. The glimmer of hope remains for the bonding bill to be passed in a special session, should one be called.

“We’re all extremely frustrated right now, but again, hopeful that a special session will come about,” said Risvold. “The funding remains in the bonding bill, so we feel like a special session should solve the problem.”

Hopeful though he was for a special session, Osmek was leery of offering a prediction on the likelihood one is held.

“I’m not optimistic; I’m not pessimistic,” Osmek said. “I do know that the only person in the state of Minnesota who can make a special session happen is the governor.”