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‘Meat and potatoes’: Nearly $1 billion separates state legislators on public works funding

ST. PAUL -- House and Senate leaders are far apart about how much to spend on public works projects. Nearly $1 billion apart. Minnesota Democratic senators Monday unveiled a plan to borrow money for $1.5 billion for public works projects, things ...

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Minnesota state Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, announces his public works funding proposal Monday in a Senate committee. Don Davis/Forum News Service

ST. PAUL - House and Senate leaders are far apart about how much to spend on public works projects. Nearly $1 billion apart.

Minnesota Democratic senators Monday unveiled a plan to borrow money for $1.5 billion for public works projects, things such as finishing the project of bringing water to southwestern Minnesota, fixing state buildings and constructing water treatment projects in small rural communities.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is close behind senators, at $1.4 billion, and suggests many of the same projects be funded. House Republicans, however, plan to offer a $600 million plan, heavily concentrating on road and bridge needs.
It is not clear how the gulf can be bridged. Majority Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate do not have enough votes to pass their own bills; in both cases, they must get help from minority lawmakers. To borrow money, three-fifths of each body must approve.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said he doubts House Democrats would vote for a bill as small as $600 million.
Bakk may have his own problems passing it: Seven Democratic members pledged to vote against the measure if it does not contain funds for a light rail project in the southwestern Twin Cities; it does not.
While House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the GOP will propose borrowing $600 million, with significant transportation funding, he said budget and other issues need to progress before details will be released.
Transportation funding is a key to wrapping up this year’s legislative session, with less than three weeks left, and transportation funding has been a top priority. The House wants to take money from other programs to fund roads and bridges, while Democrats seek to add a gasoline tax. Neither side gives any sign of giving in.
With such a big difference between the House and Senate, Bakk sounded pessimistic about transportation funding, saying about the public works bill: “Maybe this is the best we can do.”

Transportation spending is about a third of the $1.5 billion in public works projects proposed in the Senate bill.
Although the overall bill is historically big, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, said that it focuses on fixing state facilities.
“I describe it as a very basic bill, as Ford or Chevrolet, not a Cadillac,” Stumpf said.
Stumpf said that his $1.5 billion legislation falls far short of the $5.2 billion state and local governments sought.
“How do we get our hands around the ever-growing number of assets that are not being taken care of?” Stumpf asked when he told his public works committee about the plan.
The answer, he said, he is a public works bill, to be funded by the state selling bonds, “of a fairly sizeable size.”
Senators likely will vote on the plan Thursday.
Stumpf refuted comments by Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, that a bonding bill is “dessert.”
“That is absolutely not true,” Stump said, because every project is needed.
Legislators should not be surprised to see sizable bonding bills again, he said. “It will take several years to catch up.”
Torkelson was not convinced the spending is needed.
“House Republicans will prioritize how we allocate existing tax dollars - for transportation and tax relief - before turning to borrowing,” Torkelson said. “I have concerns that the Senate DFL package far exceeds the amount Minnesotans have deemed financially reasonable in past bienniums.”
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said his party will not offer up the votes for the legislation as it sits, and predicted it cannot pass with seven Democratic senators threatening the measure that lacks southeast light rail funding.
The bill is expected to be in front of the full Senate Thursday.
Stumpf expressed optimism that a public works bill, funded by the state selling bonds, would pass this year. “It is a first step in a process, but we have to get going.”
However, Stumpf said, “I think we are going to have to be good salespeople to demonstrate this is not a kind of cherry on top of the dessert. This is a meat and potatoes bill.”

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