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Bonding debate begins with $986 million proposal

By Don Davis, Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton took the first step in what has become an annual political dance about funding construction projects.

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Dayton unveiled on Wednesday his suggestion to borrow $986 million for construction projects across Minnesota, ranging from a snow-making effort at a northeastern ski facility to continuing a water project in the southwest, from expanding civic centers in the south to building a wellness center in the northwest.

Fellow Democrats, in the legislative majority, praised Dayton’s plan as a good starting point. Republicans called it too pricey. If there is to be a bill funding the projects, Dayton must persuade some Republicans to dance with him because with a supermajority needed to pass a construction funding bill, there are not enough Democrats to do it by themselves.

“This jobs bill would address many of our economic development needs,” Dayton said, claiming 27,000 jobs would be created.

Two broad categories would use more than half of the money that Dayton suggested spending. Education projects, mostly at state-owned colleges and universities, total $265 million of Dayton’s request, with economic development initiatives taking $232 million.

The Dayton administration said 38 percent of the funds would go to the seven-county Twin Cities area, 34 percent is targeted to other areas and 28 percent is proposed for statewide programs.

Key to his plan is $63 million for civic center improvements in Rochester, Mankato and St. Cloud.

The University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems would get more than a quarter of Dayton’s askings. Each would receive $40 million to repair and modernize campus facilities.

MNSCU would have $74 million to upgrade science, technology engineering and math classrooms.

The biggest single higher education project would spend $57 million to renovate a University of Minnesota Twin Cities science and teaching building. Also included is $10 million for a Crookston campus wellness center, which the Dayton administration called a regionally significant project.

Among the projects many Republicans and Democrats alike support is continuation of a Capitol building renovation project. The Democratic governor proposes finishing funding for the multi-year project with $126 million, nearly 13 percent of his total construction plan.

Other projects likely will be controversial, such as a $3.4 million plan to buy land and construct a water system for snowmaking at northeastern Minnesota’s Spirit Mountain ski area.

“Today’s wish list is another example of Gov. Dayton asking hardworking Minnesotans to overpay for things they would never buy for their families or small businesses …” said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood. “The list includes some worthwhile projects. We should focus on taking better care of the buildings we already have before literally growing the footprint of government — that will provide more work, faster for trades across the state.”

Specifically, Dean was critical of the snowmaking request as well as one to build a new $5 million facility at Giants Ridge, also in northeastern Minnesota. He said the Giants Ridge request would build a “chalet for the governor’s friends.”

Dayton clearly was concerned about getting GOP votes for a substantial construction plan. He said he was “astonished” that when “extreme right-wing” Republicans held legislative control in 2011 and 2012, they did not support civic centers and other projects he considers good for the economy.

Democrats were receptive to the Dayton plan.

“The money listed in the governor’s bonding proposals will go a long way toward strengthening both the infrastructure and the economy in our state,” said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, who leads a committee looking at construction projects. “The governor and Senate Capital Investment Committee saw a lot of need throughout the state during our tours this fall; the committee members and I look forward to releasing our own proposal in the coming months.”

Construction projects are funded by the state selling bonds, which Minnesota repays with interest over decades.

Bonding bills usually pass in even-numbered years like this. They provide an economic stimulus across the state just before incumbents are up for election in November.

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