Senate approves public works plan
ST. PAUL - The march toward confrontation continued Tuesday when senators overwhelmingly passed a public works funding bill $140 million richer than Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants.
Sen. Keith Langseth said he has no intention of backing down on the legislative session's major bill despite Pawlenty's threats to veto a bill he considers too expensive.
The House takes up a version of the bill much like the Senate's on Thursday, setting up the prospect that the bill could land on Pawlenty's desk within a week.
Senators passed 51-7 their bonding bill - known as that because the state funds projects by selling bonds. Six of the seven "no" votes came from Republicans.
Even though the bill is the main reason lawmakers gathered this year, senators spent just 15 minutes debating it.
House and Senate negotiators should begin talks as early as this weekend and get the bill to Pawlenty early next week. Pawlenty has said he opposes the size of the bill, given a worsening state economy.
The nearly $1 billion bill, which funds projects ranging from fixing college facilities to building hockey arenas, would put thousands of Minnesotans to work, said Langseth, chairman of the Senate committee that recommends what projects to fund.
State and local agencies requested about $3.5 billion in borrowed funds, which Langseth's committee whittled down to just under $1 billion.
Langseth promised to fight to keep spending at his bill's level, even though his House counterpart appears ready to lower the spending and Pawlenty insists on a smaller bill.
Langseth said he and Pawlenty disagree on how to figure interest the state must pay on bonds sold to fund projects. Traditionally, the state keeps such interest payments to 3 percent of the budget, but the question is how to determine that 3 percent.
A few Republicans criticized the bill as being too rich during a recession, but Langseth said that is when the state needs to spend money. He said it would create jobs and contractors looking for work will offer the state lower prices during a slow economy.
Assistant Minority Leader Michelle Fischbach was among seven senators to vote against the public works package.
Fischbach, R-Paynesville, said the bill borrows too much and relies on general tax revenue the state does not have.
"Overall, it was too big," she said.
Fischbach said the package includes too many local projects, such as events centers, that do not have statewide impact.
Most of the bill is paid for by the state selling bonds, but some projects would be paid with cash. That's also a problem, Fischbach said.
"There's no money in the general fund," she said. "They added to the deficit today."
A smaller bonding bill still would create jobs, she added.
When Pawlenty asks lawmakers to trim their bills, he has said, he wants arenas and events centers such as those proposed in Bemidji and Crookston to come out of the measure.
The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center addition proposal is in the House, Senate and Pawlenty's proposals and the governor said it should go ahead despite his resistance to other such proposals.
The seven senators to vote against the bonding bill were: Fischbach, Geoff Michel of Edina, Gen Olson of Minnetrista, Amy Koch of Buffalo, Warren Limmer of Maple Grove and John Doll of Burnsville (the only Democrat "no" vote). Nine senators were absent.