WORTHINGTON - Gov. Mark Dayton visited Worthington Thursday noon to urge state lawmakers to come together and compromise for the good of the state.
Dayton, who appeared in Moorhead Thursday morning and announced plans to visit Duluth and St. Cloud on Friday, spoke in Worthington about the need to pass a bonding bill and get the final $11.5 million in funding secured for the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System expansion to the community.
Saying he was preaching to the choir before a crowd that included representatives from Lewis & Clark, Worthington Public Utilities, the city of Worthington and Nobles County, Dayton spoke of his longtime support for the community’s efforts to get additional water.
Red Arndt, chairman of the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System’s (LCRWS) board of directors, spoke of first meeting Dayton in Washington, D.C., when he was a Minnesota senator. Arndt said he always spoke about funding needs for the water system - even when political leaders came to Luverne several years ago to assess flood damage. It was then that Dayton, in his role as governor, suggested the state may be able to help.
Through Dayton’s leadership and the work of local legislators, the state has financed $47 million in federal funding advances for the Lewis & Clark expansion into Minnesota. Those advances will help build the water line to Adrian by the fall of 2017. If state leaders can come together to pass a bonding bill in a special session, it’s possible Lewis & Clark could reach Worthington by the summer of 2018.
“It’s time to get this project done,” Arndt said. “It’s been 26 years since Don Habicht and myself and a few other ones started working on this. I think the city that needed the water most deserves to get it. It’s less than 1 percent of that bonding bill - the $11.5 million - to get that water here, and they can grow like the rest of us.”
Troy Larson, executive director for LCRWS, echoing sentiments voiced by several in the room, said, “This funding is so critical for us to be able to keep construction moving forward and get Worthington water as soon as possible.
“Worthington has needed more water for 100 years now, and it’s high time that we get it done,” Larson said.
Thus far, Larson said LCRWS is approximately 67 percent complete, with just more than 50 percent of the funding promised by the federal government paid toward its completion. Meanwhile, member communities and states have paid 100 percent of their portion of the project, with state advances from South Dakota and Minnesota pushing the project ahead.
Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle said he was grateful to Worthington’s leadership more than 25 years ago for joining in the efforts to bring the LCRWS to town.
“Once completed to Worthington, Lewis & Clark will give us a dependable water supply that will improve the quality of life for our residents and stimulate the economy by attracting new businesses and also addressing the needs of our current industries that need this valuable resource to stay and grow,” Kuhle said. “We are here today to advocate that the governor, the House and the Senate come together and call a special session and pass the bonding bill and public works bill.”
Dayton assured his audience he is willing to compromise. His final bonding proposal sits at $1.2 billion - the House and Senate are at $985,000. Dayton said he’s willing to split the difference at $1.1 billion. He also wants to correct a $101 million error in the tax bill and get it passed prior to July 1, when new tax laws are imposed.
While July 1 is not an absolute deadline for a bonding package, Dayton said he fears further delays will result in nothing - and that, he said, is unacceptable.
Dayton plans to meet with the four caucus leaders Wednesday, and the hope is they can reach agreement before a special session is called.
If they fail to agree on a compromise, Dayton said, “There isn’t a Plan B. The alternative is failure.
“I can’t live with myself failing the people of Minnesota and I don’t think others should be able to either,” he said. “I’m focused on doing what we can - tax, bonding and supplemental funding are all three critical components.”
Dayton said two years is still a long time for Worthington to wait for water, but he would be happy knowing the project is going forward.
“You’ve got some businesses that want to expand their operations and provide more jobs to this area, and they’ve been stymied by the lack of a sufficient water supply,” Dayton said. “I don’t need to convince you of the importance of the project.”
In addition to fielding questions about Lewis & Clark, Dayton received a request from Cheryl Avenel-Navara to take another look at the tobacco tax issue in the tax bill.
“We’re giving money back to the tobacco companies,” she said. “We fought long and hard to get taxes on cigarettes to the point where we could help discourage smoking, especially among our children. We really need to keep that tobacco tax in place.”
In another tax bill-related issue, District 518 School Superintendent John Landgaard said an agricultural land provision in the tax bill is vital in the district’s quest to get a bonding bill approved to build a new high school.
Meanwhile, Minnesota West Community & Technical College President Terry Gaalswyk thanked the governor for his support of the MnSCU system and encouraged his continued support for $21 million in supplemental funding.
Minnesota West is tapped to get $1.3 million if legislators can come together in a special session to approve bonding and projects. The money will be used to fund a new roof on the college’s library and academic resource center.
A portion of Thursday’s Dayton visit also included discussion about the Southwest Light Rail Transit project. Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne) said there are strong positions on both sides of the issue, and he would like to see an evaluation done on the light rail system. Acknowledging a need for mass transit, Weber said the state is subsidizing light rail by $70 million. That figure will only grow with the addition of another LRT project.
“Rather than let light rail stand in the way of a very important tax bill, a very important bonding bill, I’d like to see parties stand back,” Weber said. “Light rail should be evaluated. Poll those for and against light rail and have some discussion about what the future really holds for that.”
While Dayton agreed that the current system is inadequate, he said if there is no funding for light rail this year, legislators will have killed the light rail line.
“If not that, what else?” Dayton asked. “Your point is well taken. It’s expensive. I believe the investment is worthwhile.”