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Bonding projects debated

ST. PAUL — The last remaining major puzzle piece to finishing the 2014 Minnesota Legislature is set to be put in place.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, Monday announced a proposal topping $1 billion to fund public works projects around the state. It came two weeks before the Legislature must adjourn for the year.

The state would borrow $846 million through selling bonds that would be repaid by general taxes. Some projects would be funded by bonds to be repaid by other sources. The Stumpf bill also would spend nearly $200 million in cash from a state budget surplus.

While the proposal matches total borrowing in a House plan, specific projects in the bills vary. The legislative bonding level falls a bit short of what Gov. Mark Dayton proposes.

Stumpf, chairman of the committee that considers public works projects, said the state received about $4 billion in requests from local governments and state agencies for projects. Public facilities are aging, he said, and money is needed to repair them.

“Stuff doesn’t last forever,” Stumpf said.

State-run colleges and universities would get more than $250 million of the funds, which Stumpf said would help train workers. Some of the money would go to repair buildings; other funds would be spent on new facilities.

“Businesses all over the state were eager for higher-trained workers,” Stumpf said he learned while traveling the state.

Rural areas, in particular, need better-trained workers, he added, to bolster their economic growth.

Stumpf said he tried to focus on basic needs such as repairing buildings like the state Capitol, transportation, economic development and housing. But Republicans were critical of the bill, saying projects such as transportation and southwest Minnesota’s Lewis and Clark water system were shortchanged in proposals by the Democratic governor and legislative leaders.

Lewis and Clark, which has become the hot-button bonding topic, needs about $70 million to provide water to the Luverne and Worthington areas of southwestern Minnesota. None of the proposals provide that much. Senators’ suggestion is paying $13 million to keep the project going, while Dayton wants to spend $20 million.

Republicans were critical of funding projects such as a Minneapolis sculpture garden instead of Lewis and Clark.

“If you want to do things like extend water to the parched area of the state ... shouldn’t we be able to start with those critical needs first?” Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, asked.

Stumpf said that a bonding bill needs to contain a variety of projects.

“It is easy to point to a project and say, ‘Don’t fund this one, but fund the one I want,’” Stumpf said.

When it comes to projects such as the sculpture garden, he admitted, “many people probably think of it more as a frill than a need.”

Southwestern Minnesota officials say their growth is hampered by lack of a good water system.

Three-fifths of the House and Senate must approve of a bonding bill, which means some Republicans will need to join Democrats who control the Legislature if a bonding bill is to pass. The cash spending, which will be in a separate bill, only needs a simple majority.

Stumpf said he expects the House and Senate to pass different bills, forcing negotiators to work out differences in a conference committee.

He said legislative leaders want to adjourn for the year by the end of the week, but he said that work may not be done by then.

Items in the bill include:

  • $126.3 million to complete state Capitol building renovation. It is the one biggest expenditure and would come from state budget surplus cash.
  • $255 million for state-run colleges and universities to fix and modernize their facilities as well as to build a few new ones. The most expensive single college construction project is $56.7 million to build a University of Minnesota science building in the Twin Cities.
  • $18 million in flood prevention efforts, mostly for Moorhead and Montevideo areas. The governor did not suggest any flood money in his proposal.
  • $14 million to develop the Vermillion State Park in northeastern Minnesota, another proposal the governor did not fund.
  • $1.5 million for ice rinks use by youth hockey players and figure skaters around the state that in coming years must replace ice-making equipment that use outlawed coolant. Sen. James Metzen, D-South St. Paul, said it is a fraction of what is needed.
  • $40 million each for local bridge and local road needs. That total is twice as much as the governor proposed.
Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.