Minnesota House to review $500 million public works bill todayThe Minnesota House will decide today whether to send a nearly $500 million public works borrowing bill to the governor or continue to work on it.
By: Don Davis and Danielle Nordine, State Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL – The Minnesota House will decide today whether to send a nearly $500 million public works borrowing bill to the governor or continue to work on it.
On Monday, the House and Senate passed slightly different versions of the bill, which would allow state money to go toward colleges, roads, bridges, flood prevention and renovation of the state Capitol building, among other needs throughout the state.
The Senate, which approved the bill 45-22, shifted some money to allow for funding new projects during its Monday debate. The House either can accept changes made by the Senate or send the bill to a joint conference committee where lawmakers will work out the differences.
A number of legislators tried to add local projects to the bill, but most were unsuccessful.
Although the bonding bill is larger than Republicans originally proposed, Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said it contains dedicated funding for only one project in the city he represents: $737,000 for updates at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center.
At a minimum, Reinert said he was looking for assurances that state funding for a new mass-transit center in Duluth would be made available. He noted that without a $6 million state match, the city could miss out on $20 million in federal grant monies that already have been approved for the project.
“The state has the last piece to this puzzle,” he said.
Reinert said it appeared to him that partisan politics played a role in excluding many Duluth projects from the bonding bill in Minnesota’s Republican-dominated Legislature.
“It’s difficult to read it any other way,” he said.
Reinert said about $27 million of the Department of Employment and Economic Development funds probably would go to pay for a new, improved venue for the St. Paul Saints minor-league baseball team. He predicted competition for the remaining $18 million would be intense, although he said that Duluth had a shot at winning funding for Wade Stadium from whatever was left over.
The Legislature must adjourn after 120 days, giving it two more working days to complete its business.
“We’re stumbling toward adjournment,” he said.
Reinert said it’s quite likely that approving a Vikings stadium will be the Legislature’s only other significant achievement this session.
While he supports the stadium, Reinert said: “If that’s our crowning achievement, I wouldn’t even give us a C as a grade this session.”
The bill wasn’t everything Rep. Kerry Gauthier had hoped.
“It’s too small, but I’m going to vote for it, because this is $496 million we can put into the economy to put people to work. That’s why I’ll be voting for the new Vikings stadium, as well,” he said.
The House bill keeps hope alive for other projects in Duluth:
The University of Minnesota Duluth’s request for $7 million toward a $10.5 million American Indian Resource Center did not fare as well, receiving no bonding money in the House bill.
Some bonding money should flow to the Iron Range, as well. The house earmarked $2 million to help develop Vermilion State Park.
Several community and technical colleges in the Northland would be eligible to compete for a share of $2.5 million the House bonding bill set aside for science, technology, engineering and math initiatives. Among the nine campuses eligible for the funding are Hibbing Community College, Itasca Community College, Mesabi Range Community and Technical College in Eveleth, and Pine Technical College in Pine City.
The House also would dedicate $15 million in bond funds for the Wastewater Infrastructure Funding Program, which has been instrumental in funding city projects and work at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District.
Eric Shaffer, chief engineer for the Duluth Public Utilities Department, said the program has funded millions of dollars of work in the city, including the construction of wastewater overflow tanks to keep untreated sewage out of Lake Superior after heavy rains, and numerous improvements to an aging sanitary sewer system.
“It has been a major factor in helping us to eliminate sewer overflows at a reasonable cost to ratepayers,” said Shaffer, noting that the city has additional applications for funding pending from the Wastewater Infrastructure Funding Program.
Meanwhile, the House took a pass on a request for $3.6 million in funding for a pumping system to supply the water needs of the ski operations at Lutsen Mountains from Lake Superior instead of depleting the neighboring Poplar River.
Looking at the bonding bill as a whole, Gauthier noted regional disparities.
“I think the whole northern half of the state got shorted. So did cities of the first class,” Gauthier said. “It’s a very southern, rural bill.”
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said there were many “meritorious” projects proposed, but “we’re trying to keep this bill within the confines of $496 million.”
Democrats have pushed for spending more on the public works borrowing bill while Republicans want to keep the spending cap low.
The House approved its version of the bill 99-32 Monday before the Senate debate.
Nearly $200 million of the proposal would go to state-run colleges and universities, with the Capitol getting $44 million to begin a renovation project that eventually will cost upwards of $220 million. The bill also spreads money around to projects such as flood prevention, transit, roads, bridges, home foreclosure prevention and other needs throughout the state.
Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said they did “pretty well” setting up the bill given the Republicans’ desired spending cap. Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said the bill is a compromise.
“We do have the capacity to do a larger bonding bill than what is before us,” Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said as she unsuccessfully tried to add funding for the University of Minnesota.
Funds would be raised by the state selling bonds, and repaid over a period of up to 30 years.
The new bill includes $50 million that the state DEED can hand out for economic development projects. Howes said it could be used for projects such as those often including in the bonding bill, including civic centers that were not included in this year’s bill.
“This was a way that greater Minnesota communities, who many times don’t have lobbyists to speak for them, can go through DEED and get the money,” Howes said.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, called it a “$50 million slush fund.” An amendment to the bill Drazkowski offered would have moved that money to local road construction, but representatives voted it down 84-47. A similar proposal was discussed in the Senate but withdrawn.
Another Drazkowski proposal, to pay for some public works projects from a sales tax increase votes approved in 2008, lost 92-37.
Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, praised the bill for spending $30 million for flood prevention.
“It will go a long way ... toward protecting our cities and communities from 100-year flood,” Marquart said.
Some were not so happy. Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, complained that the bill does not include money to fight Asian carp.
“We’re saying we are going to give the carp another year to get up the Mississippi,” she said about the fish that eat so much food as to leave native species wanting.
A plan from Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, to provide more than $7 million for building the American Indian Learning Resource Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth lost on a 33-33 tie vote.
“This is important history to preserve, and what better place to do it than the University of Minnesota?” Bakk said.
Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, had her plan to provide $50,000 to a Cottage Grove business incubator program rejected on a voice vote.
Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, asked for $250,000 for a similar project at Pine Technical College, but his amendment was voted down 35-32.
Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, lost 47-20 a plan to provide grant funding to public entities using biomass energy products.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, lost 69-62 in trying to require made in Minnesota solar energy equipment on new public facilities.
“This is a good way when you are using taxpayer money to the tune of almost half a billion dollars to support local businesses,” Rukavina said.
Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, lost an attempt on a voice vote to take $250,000 earmarked for a National Guard training center and give it to designing a Bemidji veterans’ home.
“We can’t be taking from our current men and women serving in the National Guard,” Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, said.
The Senate voted 50-14 against including $4.75 million for a community center for Wadena, to replace facilities destroyed in a 2010 tornado. The project was not included in the bill House and Senate leaders wrote. However, Wadena could apply for part of the $50 million in grant money.
“The community’s been in the process of rebuilding ever since 2010,” Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, said.
Danielle Nordine and News Tribune staff writer Peter Passi contributed to this report. Nordine and Don Davis report for Forum Communications Co.