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Water system a symbol of bonding debate

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ST. PAUL — Southwest Minnesota’s long-awaited water project has become the poster child for those who say the legislative public works funding process is flawed.

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Republicans in the House Ways and Means Committee Tuesday said that the need for water should trump projects like a new University of Minnesota museum and planetarium. The House Democratic committee chairwoman in charge of public works funding, who long has championed the university project, said she needs to be given more money for her bill before the Lewis and Clark water system can be funded.

“It is one of many water problems around the state,” Chairwoman Alice Hausman of St. Paul said, including some in the eastern Twin Cities near where she lives. “We have not resolved any of them.”

Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, tried, but failed, to amend Hausman’s bill to provide $70 million for the water system. Money would be drawn from places such as the university’s Bell Museum and planetarium.

Gunther said high nitrate levels in southwest Minnesota’s water near areas around Luverne and Worthington are dangerous.

“It aborts animal fetuses, it is very harmful to babies, it is harmful for doing what people do with fresh water,” Gunther said.

The Ways and Means Committee refused to go along with Gunther, but as committee members wrapped up their discussion in one area of the state Capitol complex, House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, was pulling up a chair next to Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, who last weekend launched a Twitter and telephone campaign to get Lewis and Clark funded.

“The speaker sat right here,” Hamilton said an hour later, pointing to a leather and wood chair. “He wants to work with us.”

While Thissen made no promises, Hamilton said that he is optimistic that money will be made available in the public works bill, mostly funded by the state selling bonds.

Hamilton said he was upset before Thissen talked to him, but the southwestern Minnesota lawmaker later wore a big smile.

Across the street at the Ways and Means meeting, Hausman agreed with Gov. Mark Dayton, who says he strongly supports Lewis and Clark, but cannot fully funded it unless more bonding money is available. Dayton suggested spending $20 million, $50 million short of what water system supporters say is needed, but Hausman included nothing in her updated bill that Ways and Means approved Tuesday.

Federal funds were supposed to pay for much of the water system years ago, but money never came through. Now, Lewis and Clark officials want the state to pay.

Hausman’s revised bill also fully funds state Capitol building renovation with $126 million. Hausman originally only put a token amount in her bill.

Hausman said that culture, arts, parks and trails projects that Republicans complain about are important to communities across the state.

The chairwoman said many communities are using arts projects to improve their economies.

The Bell Museum rebuilding project has been considered for 10 years, but the university no longer places it on its priority list. Hausman said it is the successor to a state natural resources museum lawmakers established in the 1800s and is important to teach Minnesota students science. She said exhibits must be covered to protect them from a leaky roof.

Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said that he walked past the Bell every day when he attended the University of Minnesota (but did not go in), and opposes its funding now. “I think we need this water more in southwest Minnesota. ... It requires water, and it requires it right now.”

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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.
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