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New plan for Lewis & Clark water breaks session deadlock

ST. PAUL — Rewriting this year’s remaining major spending bills to fund a water project for dry southwest Minnesota appears to have broken a legislative logjam.

Finding a way to pay for the Lewis and Clark water system opens the possibility that the 2014 Legislature could end as early as today.

However, trying to work out details delayed action, and legislators did not take up any of the major bills until late Thursday. They were expected to be in session most or all of the night.

The state constitution requires lawmakers to cast their final votes of the year no later than Sunday, although they may meet Monday but not take votes.

Throughout Thursday, lawmakers met off and on. They took up what were considered mostly minor issues and have several smaller bills left to consider along with bonding, cash spending, taxes and a budget adjustment.

The spending deal would pay Lewis and Clark $22 million in cash and allow local officials to sell bonds to fund the remaining $45 million of project costs. Local governments would repay a third of the bonds over 20 years, with the state paying the other two-thirds, Senate Taxes Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said.

“We are stepping up,” said House Taxes Chair Ann Lenczewski, D-Bloomington. “The state is going to pay 85 percent of the whole thing.”

Minnesota is getting involved because the federal government backed off a promise to pay for the system, which is to bring water from near the Missouri River in South Dakota. Federal funds dried up when the project reached the Minnesota-South Dakota line.

“The federal government really has dropped the ball here,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, adding that lack of water is hampering economic growth throughout southwest Minnesota.

The issue has become the biggest problem to writing a public works funding bill, the main job of lawmakers this year.

The solution was to remove the system from the state bonding bill and instead pay to get water to the Luverne area from the state budget surplus. The rest of the project, moving water to the Worthington area, would be funded by provisions in a tax bill.

That required juggling other provisions, including reducing Local Government Aid increases House and Senate tax negotiators had planned to send to cities.

“There still is quite an increase in LGA,” Lenczewski said.

The bonding and cash public works bills would spend more than $1 billion on projects ranging from college building repairs to developing Vermillion State Park to funding flood prevention programs.

An item in the budget bill is $20 million for broadband high-speed Internet expansion.

Gov. Mark Dayton and rural lawmakers praised the inclusion.

“Border-to-border access to reliable cellphone and high-speed Internet coverage will be essential to Minnesota’s continued economic growth,” Dayton said. “These new investments in broadband infrastructure will help move our state closer to that important goal.”

A health and human services bill the House and Senate passed includes a provision that limits youths’ access to electronic cigarettes. It does not ban their use in all public places, as a Senate bill originally did, but gives local governments the authority to do that. They also could not be used in government-owned buildings.

E-cigarettes, which use water vapor but not tobacco, would not be allowed in schools and other locations children often visit.

The bill also prohibits minors from using tanning beds.

Also on Thursday, a legislative committee struck an agreement that would force the state lottery to discontinue sales of online instant scratch-off tickets as well as sales at gasoline pumps and ATMs by November.

The deal House and Senate negotiators made would leave in place the online sales of lotto-style games like Powerball that the lottery has offered since 2010.

Lottery Executive Director Ed Van Petten said he would recommend that the governor veto it, arguing the lottery needs an online presence to remain viable into the future with young players.

Lawmakers have objected to the lottery venturing into online gaming without legislative authorization, particularly the implementation in February of the scratch-off games. Some have expressed concerns that those games’ instant-win nature make them potentially more addictive than draw-type games like Powerball, where players enter their numbers and find out later if they’ve won.

The spotlight for much of the past few days was on public works projects, especially Lewis and Clark.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said that while the Lewis and Clark provisions would provide full funding for the water system, southwest Minnesota leaders will continue to pressure federal officials to pay what they promised.

Among provisions that tax negotiators would give Nobles and Rock county officials, as well as Luverne and Worthington, is the ability to raise taxes without a public referendum to fund local water system costs. Sales taxes up to a half percent could be added, and an existing Worthington sales tax could be extended. They also could raise property taxes.

Doug Belden of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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.