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Column: With Lewis & Clark, what's said (and not said) is often politically motivated

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opinion Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON — My morning began Tuesday with a call from Matt Swenson, press secretary for Gov. Mark Dayton. The reason for his call — he said our editorial about funding for the Lewis & Clark Regional System Water project misrepresented the governor’s position.

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Swenson reminded me both on the phone and in an email that, on Jan. 15, the governor introduced his bonding proposal, including $20 million for Phase 1 of the project. Swenson also pointed out that, in a visit with local officials in early April reported by this newspaper, Dayton said he would like $69 million in funding necessary to complete the project — should the Legislature be willing to pass a bonding bill of $1.2 billion.

Dayton, as Swenson reminded me, pushed for the full $69 million — and a $1.2 billion bonding bill — once again during his State of the State address last week. The governor’s position, therefore, has remained consistent, Swenson stressed. The governor originally proposed $20 million — the figure we noted in Tuesday’s editorial — but has asked for full funding should he get the larger bonding bill he wants.

I have no disagreement with what Swenson says, but this does not change the increasing cynicism I am developing about everything having to do with funding Lewis & Clark, not to mention what else is going on at the Capitol.

Since Dayton proposed his $20 million for Lewis & Clark in January, members of both parties have continued to stake out their ground on this and numerous other issues. By the time April rolled around and Dayton started talking about full funding with a large bonding bill, the governor made a lot of southwest Minnesotans happy by touting something he probably knew couldn’t be delivered.

After all, the Minnesota House and Senate, both under DFL control, weren’t showing a willingness to put forth bonding bills at the level Dayton wanted. A House panel, for instance, approved a bonding bill of $850 million in early April, at a time that practically coincided with Dayton’s fund-Lewis-&-Clark-at-the-full-amount talk. The House panel’s $850 million figure was by no means a surprise, so one could argue that even back then, getting $69 million for the water we urgently need was — pardon the pun — a pipe dream.

Dayton obviously believes in the project, as he continued to talk about it up through the State of the State. Yet, he must realize full well that he’s going to be hard-pressed to get his full $1.2 billion — a result of the need for Republican votes he almost surely doesn’t have.

That’s where our legislators come in. District 22A Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, has been an outspoken proponent of Lewis & Clark, as have District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker and District 22 Sen. Bill Weber. Two Republican votes in the House and one in the Senate, however, do not get a $1.2 billion bonding bill passed in either chamber. DFL legislators know it, Republican legislators know it and the governor knows it, and the product of all this is no shortage of political gamesmanship. Of course, that’s to be fully expected in a year in which Dayton, not to mention the entire House, will be on ballots in November. They’re all now preparing their respective spins as if they were getting ready to rotate like old 78-rpm records.

When Hamilton suggested House Speaker Paul Thissen was “throwing (his) friends under the bus” by stripping Lewis & Clark funding from the House bonding bill, he was motivated by politics. When Thissen told the Daily Globe that “Republican leadership is not willing to support him on that (a larger bonding bill including Lewis & Clark), he was also motivated by politics. Who you agree with, I suppose, depends on your perspective. But wouldn’t this whole exercise be much clearer if the House, in this case, simply put forth a bigger bill for a vote, and let the chips fall as they may? Instead, it’s easier for DFLers to simply say, “We didn’t have enough Republican votes,” or conversely, Republicans to say, “The Democrats didn’t even give us a chance to consider it.”

Ah ... if only life in St. Paul were simpler. And, let us not forget that it’s inaction in Washington that put us in this conundrum in the first place.

Nevertheless, given where we’re at — I think of it as the bottom of the eighth in a nine-inning game — it seems like the best thing we can hope for is for Dayton to step up and “demand the full amount,” as our editorial concluded Tuesday. If Dayton believes so strongly in $69 million for Lewis & Clark, he should tell the House and Senate that he won’t sign any bonding bill without it. He can ask for removal of dollars for what are, by comparison, frivolous projects like sculpture gardens and other culture-related endeavors. I love culture as much as the next person, but water for an entire region of the state is a little more important, isn’t it? Plus, that $69 million just might get paid back if the feds come through on their promise of long ago ... though that clearly is no certainty.

The next few days will be all-telling. Hopefully, the “tell” on what happens with Lewis & Clark will be more compelling than the “spin.”

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