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Commissioner's view: Legislature wasting time by not passing a bonding bill

A rare thing happened last year. For only the second time in three decades, the Minnesota Legislature failed to pass a public works bill to make needed investments in Minnesota's aging, underfunded infrastructure.

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Myron Frans

A rare thing happened last year. For only the second time in three decades, the Minnesota Legislature failed to pass a public works bill to make needed investments in Minnesota's aging, underfunded infrastructure.

That means 22 months have gone by since the Legislature passed a public works bill. And for 22 months, our water treatment plants, airport runways, and labs and classrooms have gotten older and more expensive to fix.

Meanwhile, during these 22 months of inaction by the Legislature, Gov. Mark Dayton has put forward two proposals for badly needed public works investments. His latest proposal, released more than 10 weeks ago, would create an estimated 22,950 jobs across Minnesota. The public works bill was developed in tandem with communities throughout the state. These projects are shovel-ready, and each one is poised to make a positive impact on our state.

Every month the Legislature waits to propose, and ultimately pass, a bonding bill, is another month wasted. And with less than 10 weeks remaining in this legislative session, time is one thing we cannot afford to waste.

What does further delay mean for Duluth? At least $176 million in state and federal investments in modern infrastructure, cleaner water, and a better environment are at stake.

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Gov. Dayton's public works bill includes 225 infrastructure projects that benefit Duluth and the region, including $21 million to upgrade the city of Duluth's 80-year-old steam heating system, $6.6 million for runway reconstruction at the Duluth Airport, $5.6 million to expand the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, and $28.3 million for a new Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science Building on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus.

The safety of Duluth's water is also at stake. Lake Superior adds not only to the beauty of Duluth but also to its diverse and vibrant economy. But for decades pollution has taken its toll on the St. Louis River estuary. Originally identified for cleanup in 1987 by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the estuary long has been an area of concern. Without significant investments this year by the Legislature, an opportunity to clean and restore the St. Louis River estuary may not become available again.

The urgency is this: The federal money is available for a limited time only to the eight Great Lakes states on a first-come, first-served basis. It is estimated that cleanup and restoration of the estuary will cost $76 million. In order to secure over $47 million from the federal government, Gov. Dayton's bonding proposal requests the required $25.4 million state match. We must secure the federal investment as soon as possible - this year - to avoid allowing the funding to go elsewhere and miss this crucial opportunity.

The needs of the state's infrastructure are clear and have not gotten any less demanding in the last 22 months. Yet a public works bill has not been the focus of some policymakers in St. Paul. Instead of looking to the aging-infrastructure needs of communities around the state, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is pushing a bill to actually limit the number of job-creating public works projects that can be funded in any given year.

This move is not only misguided, it would act as a barrier in our ability to invest in Minnesota communities. Our debt guidelines were first introduced in 1979 and updated in 2009 to reflect how rating agencies evaluate our debt. Setting a statutory debt limit would hinder the state's flexibility to manage its resources and adapt to changing economic conditions. In fact, due to Gov. Dayton's sound fiscal management over the last six years, the state of Minnesota has returned to a triple-A bond rating and has over $3 billion in available bonding capacity for 2017-18.

Minnesotans and their communities cannot afford to wait a month longer for a public works bill. We cannot continue shielding our eyes to the needs of communities throughout Minnesota. It is my hope that Minnesotans will join me and support the responsible approach of the governor's bonding proposal this year.

Myron Frans is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.

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