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Public works plans to be trimmed

ST. PAUL -- Whether the state should help pay for events centers and hockey arenas is one of the biggest debates in one of the biggest bills Minnesota lawmakers are discussing this year.

That debate is second only to how much the state should spend on public works projects.

Those two issues will take the spotlight today and Thursday when the Senate and House debate their slightly differing versions of the socalled bonding bill, the main reason legislators are meeting this year.

In past years, lawmakers have approved funding to help build local facilities like events centers and hockey arenas around the state. But this year, they face a nearly $1 billion budget deficit, which has produced doubt about how big the bonding bill -- called that because public works projects are funded by the state selling bonds -- can be.

Even as the House Capital Investment Committee advanced its bonding package Monday, bill author Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, predicted controversy about arenas and warned projects will be dropped from consideration because of the tighter budget.

"We all agree there is going to be a lot of cutting," she said.

Minnesota policymakers follow a rule that no more than 3 percent of the state budget can be spent on repaying bonds. But Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty cannot agree on how to figure that 3 percent. Langseth is chairman of the Senate committee that decides what bonding projects to fund.

The House and Senate both propose spending $967 million for public construction projects. After last week's bad news about the growing deficit and bonding included in a transportation bill that passed over his objections, he now wants the total measure lowered to $825 million.

The lead Republican on Hausman's committee, Rep. Larry Howes of Walker, said while it is important to go into negotiations with similar spending levels as the Senate, many projects will lose out when lawmakers eventually look for ways to scale back.

"I think there's a lot of areas in the bill where there's low fruit to grab," Howes said.

Higher education takes top billing in the House and Senate proposals.

The larger Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system would see $281 million for work at its campuses in the House bill; senators proposed about $10 million less for MnSCU.

Davis and Wente work for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.