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Column: Time is ideal to raise bonding cap

By JERRY DAHL, Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus

MAHNOMEN — Governor Dayton renewed his call last week on Minnesota legislators to bust past their self-imposed, bipartisan ceiling on funding public works statewide — as did House Capital Investment Chair Alice Hausman, DFL -St. Paul.

Hausman, who called her own bill “inadequate” when presenting to her committee earlier this month, lamented that her original $1.24 billion bonding bill had to be slashed to meet the tight constraints of a bipartisan end-of-session agreement between House and Senate caucus leaders to hold the 2014 bonding bill to $850 million.

We’ll be the first to admit, a deal is a deal. But deals can be renegotiated — and that’s what we believe should happen here.

Because we have the capacity, because the needs are so great, and because we’ve deferred the cost of addressing statewide infrastructure needs over so long a time, we are urging legislative leaders to think twice about the limitations imposed by the $850 million bonding limit agreed to last year.

What do we mean by deferred projects? Here’s a small sample of the large and growing ($4 billion) backlog of infrastructure funding needs the bonding committees must sort through and fund within the $850 limit:

* MnSCU, the state university system, has identified $715 million in current asset preservation needs alone, and 17 of its building projects on the current list were are veteran project candidates not funded in previous years.

* There are 698 projects on the Clean Water and Drinking Water priority list for a total estimated cost of $1.7 billion.

* The backlog for Port Development Assistance funding, which is critical to helping Midwest corn and bean producers maintain leadership in world grain markets is $25.6 million.

* The backlog for Local Bridge Replacement is 706 bridges with a total of $102 million needed in bond funds.

* In 2012, the total demonstrated need for local roads in the Local Road Improvement Program — the 10-ton farm to market road system critical to Minnesota farmers and foresters, as well as to congestion relief and highway safety in the cities and regional centers — was $282 million. That $282 million in project needs competed for just $10 million in 2012 allocated funding.

That’s why we could sympathize with the comments of Senate Capitol Investment Chair LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls. He said — after hearing transportation experts describe hundreds of millions in unmet local road and bridge needs to a hushed committee last week — “You kind of don’t know where to start — it’s so overwhelming.”

We are encouraged to hear that Sen. Stumpf will focus his attentions on transportation needs as he puts the senate bill together this week. We hope he gives adequate attention to the Local Road Improvement Program — a deserving program that has been chronically underfunded since its inception in 2002.

Stopgap programs like the Local Road Improvement Program have taken on greater meaning over the years as the legislature continues to demonstrate an ongoing inability to fund comprehensive, long-term road and bridge funding needs.

We hope Minnesota legislative leaders will reconsider the agreement they made on the $850 million cap on the Capitol Investment bill this year, and that Sen. Stumpf funds transportation needs to the highest possible level.

Jerry Dahl is a Mahnomen County commissioner and chairman of the Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus, which consists of 29 rural counties and is the only membership organization advocating specifically for Greater Minnesota counties.

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