Ralph Doty: DECC spin doctors diagnose plenty of causes but offer few cures

It didn't take much time, after the Minnesota Legislature adjourned last weekend, for politicians and their friends to launch their spin games on the failure of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center expansion project to get funding in the st...

It didn't take much time, after the Minnesota Legislature adjourned last weekend, for politicians and their friends to launch their spin games on the failure of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center expansion project to get funding in the state bonding bill.

If we are to believe what they said, the lack of DECC funding was the exclusive fault of: Gov. Tim Pawlenty or House Speaker Steve Sviggum or Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson or Duluth's legislators or Mayor Herb Bergson or the DFL or the GOP or the high school and college students serving as Senate and House pages. OK, that last one is not true. But it seems that anyone even remotely connected with the legislative session is taking a beating.

There is more than enough blame to go around after the fiasco surrounding the DECC's request for $33 million from the state, though you'd never know it by listening to some local talk shows. For example, on his Monday program, host Lew Latto was, well, Lew Latto. Never one to give credit to Democrats for much of anything, he would have you believe DECC funding failed because the DFL failed to deliver. It was totally their fault.

To be sure, the Senate, controlled by the DFL, seriously hurt the project's chances when it failed to put a single penny into its version of the bonding bill. Shame on them. But in blaming only the DFL for the lack of DECC funding, Lew seems to have forgotten that Pawlenty (the most powerful politician in the state) and Sviggum (the second most powerful politician in the state) are Republicans. Furthermore, the GOP controlled the House of Representatives, appointed chairs and had healthy vote majorities on every committee. Surely, that kind of power counts for something -- even in the case of the DECC.

Some folks are saying that Democrats on the Tax Conference Committee blew it when they turned down a last minute "compromise" offered by Pawlenty and the Republican caucus. Well, not so fast. Several days ago I obtained a copy of that written offer and here's what it said:


"We realize the importance of finishing this session now. This offer is from the Governor and Republican caucus. You may decline or accept in its entirety (emphasis added).

"Permanent property tax relief in the form of K-12 operating capital equalization

"Military pension exclusion

"Dairy tax investment credit

"Married filing jointly

"One-time payment for iron project in Itasca County


On the first item alone -- property tax relief -- Pawlenty and Sviggum knew the DFL Senate conferees would not accept the take-it-or-leave-it, all-or-nothing proposal. Why? Because the DFL had a different approach on how property tax relief should be handled. So it's difficult to describe the GOP "compromise" as anything but a political ploy.


Let's be honest about it: The DECC project was a hard sell from the beginning. The initial request of $33 million was an extraordinarily large local community request. Advocates of state funding were warned early on that such a large amount of money would be difficult for some legislators to swallow. It might mean that other capital requests from northeastern Minnesota and across the state would have to be sacrificed to pay for the DECC, they were cautioned. Bottom line: Perhaps DECC supporters should have been a little less greedy.

And then there's this. Some observers in St. Paul told me that Duluth's precarious financial position -- mostly the result of its overwhelming debt for much-too-generous health care costs for retired city employees -- hurt the DECC's chances. Some legislators were saying it didn't make sense to give millions to a city that hasn't handled its finances very well in recent years.

In the next few weeks the Duluth legislative delegation will take its lumps from constituents, but the fact is that most (but not all) worked hard to get DECC funding. And despite the DECC fiasco -- and contrary to what some angry people are saying -- northeastern Minnesota did extremely well in the bonding bill. With only a small fraction of Minnesota's total population, the Northland received more than 10 percent of bonding bill money. That's good work by the small number of legislators representing this part of the state.

Finally, a lingering mystery: Why did Pawlenty insist that Duluth hold a referendum for a sales tax increase for the DECC in exchange for his support, while at the same time enthusiastically backing a Twins stadium bill that excluded a sales tax referendum in Hennepin County? That looks to me like a classic case of hypocrisy.

UMD stadium still alive

The caller wanted to know what happened to money I said the UMD football stadium would receive from the Legislature this year. "I didn't see anything in the News Tribune about that project," he said.

Correct. But alert readers will recall I said a new UMD football stadium would not be funded through the state bonding bill. Last week, the University of Minnesota received $248 million for a football stadium and will sell the bonds on its own. The state will then reimburse the university when debt service payments come due. It's from that appropriation that UMD will receive stadium money from the main campus.

Meanwhile, private fund-raising for the UMD stadium is coming along nicely. A source involved in the effort told me that total donations thus far are well into six figures. A formal campaign announcement will be made in a few weeks.


Ralph Doty welcomes your comments and suggestions at , or c/o Duluth Budgeteer News, 222 West Superior Street, Duluth 55802.

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