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Representatives Jay McNamar of Elbow Lake, left, and David FitzSimmons of Albertville sit in a Minnesota House committee Tuesday that considered funding public construction projects statewide. Forum News Service photo by Don Davis

State House bonding bill author calls it ‘inadequate’

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ST. PAUL — A nearly $1 billion proposal to fund state construction projects, ranging from trails to transit, launched Tuesday with its author calling it “inadequate” and a Republican who usually supports public works projects saying he could not vote for it.

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It was an unusual start for a public works funding bill, financed by the state selling bonds. Few legislators expressed enthusiasm for a pair of bills: One would bond for $850 million while the other could spend $125 million of the state budget surplus on construction projects.

“The one defining word is ‘inadequate,’” Rep. Alice Hausman, D-St. Paul, said in introducing her proposal to the House Capital Investment Committee.

“We are still trying to rebuild this bill,” she added.

Hausman said she “hopes for a miracle” and that leaders come up with more money for public works projects.

That is unlikely, however, since Democratic and Republican legislative leaders already have agreed to cap public works borrowing at $850 million. It is not clear what will happen to surplus-funded projects because Republicans generally see the cap as being on both cash and borrowed money.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, normally is likely to vote for a public works bill, but said he would not support the one released Tuesday because it severely underfunds Capitol building restoration and other significant projects.

Rep. Jay McNamar, D-Elbow Lake, was as close to enthusiastic as any representative, but even he said the bill fell short.

“I would like to see $1.3 billion instead of $850 million,” he said.

McNamar said many of the projects should have been funded years ago.

Rural Minnesota fares well in the bill, McNamar said.

“No one’s totally happy, which I think makes for a good bill,” said Rep. John Ward, D-Baxter.

“We are doing what we can with what we have,” added Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing.

Hausman said she received nearly $4 billion in project requests.

As she told the committee she leads about the bill on Tuesday, she frequently said she would like more money for various projects. However, if she gets her way on many of those projects, others would shrink.

Hausman’s bill, which the committee planned to approve  Tuesday night, includes money for state college and university projects, expanding the state trail system, helping communities build sewer systems, giving money to transportation and transit programs and expanding civic centers in many communities, among other uses.

Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, questioned why the bill includes only $20 million to complete a multiyear Capitol building renovation project. Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration says $126 million is needed this year, but Hausman included only $20 million.

Hausman called the lower amount “a placeholder” that likely will expand as the bill goes through the legislative process.

Urdahl hopes so. The history teacher and author is the most outspoken supporter of repairing the 109-year-old Capitol building.

He called the Hausman plan “seriously lacking in the Capitol area. It would pretty much shut down construction.”

The domed Capitol is undergoing a multiyear renovation in which nearly every inch of the building will be updated and everyone with an office there will be moved out for a time. Some already have been moved out of the Capitol, not to return until work is completed in 2016 or 2017.

Any renovation delays will end up forcing the state to pay higher construction costs, Urdahl and Dean said.

The cash spending bill only needs a simple majority of the 134 representatives to approve, which Democrats alone could provide. However, borrowing money by selling bonds requires 81 votes, meaning the Democratic-Farmer-Labor majority needs some Republican votes to pass the bill.

Hausman said the bill was written, in part, to attract GOP votes. Dean said there are Republican supporters, but he did not know if there would be a consensus among his party members.

Melin was happy Hausman included $19.5 million for moving utilities that are next to U.S. 53.

The Iron Range highway is being moved as a mine expands, but funds had not been appropriated to move utilities that run along it.

After Dayton left flood prevention efforts out of his bonding proposal, Hausman included $9.9 million. But, she said, that could grow.

“I am certain that the Senate will ask us to be a little more aggressive there,” she said about a provision to help Moorhead and Montevideo.

Legislators from across Minnesota said the Hausman bill is at least a good first step.

“A targeted, statewide bonding bill will help our state create good-paying jobs in the short term while strengthening our economy for the long term,” said Rep. Mary Sawatzky, D-Willmar. “We have a huge backlog of critical infrastructure projects that we need to get done if we want a strong economy and high quality of life in the future.”

McNamar said bonding equals jobs, with thousands being put to work to build and repair government facilities.

The proposal includes local projects that some lawmakers have sought for years.

“These local projects will definitely help get people back to work in our area,” said Rep. Roger Erickson, D-Baudette.

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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.
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