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Construction deals make now the best time to spend, senator says

ST. PAUL -- Sen. Keith Langseth hopes Gov. Tim Pawlenty likes a good sale.

The Glyndon Democrat considers current construction costs a bargain because they are 15 percent to 20 percent lower than normal.

Given that, he said Thursday, the state should invest nearly $1 billion in construction projects across Minnesota.

"There's a sale going on out there," said Langseth, chairman of the Senate committee that funds public works projects.

"This is the time to bond and build. ... The time to bond and build is during the down time when you get your best deals. You put people to work who aren't normally working."

The public works bill, funded by the state selling bonds, was the highlight of the Minnesota Legislature's opening day of its 2010 session.

House and Senate Democratic leaders agree on the amount to borrow for public works projects, and about 90 percent of how to spend it. However, Pawlenty and many other Republicans prefer a $685 million measure.

"Trim it down," Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, told Langseth.

But Michel was one of the few dissenting votes Thursday as Langseth's committee easily adopted the bill and sent it to the Senate Finance Committee today. The full Senate is expected to approve the bill Tuesday, a day later than originally planned.

The similar House bill funding college building repairs, sewage systems, trails and other state projects must make more committee stops, and it is expected to receive a Feb. 15 vote.

Langseth predicted the bill could put 10,000 Minnesotans to work, especially in the trades that have been hit hard by a recession.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said the bill would put people to work this summer.

"I would focus on one reason we are moving quickly," she said. "The one bright spot in a bad economy is that interest rates are low and bids are coming in low."

Pawlenty has said publically that he would veto the entire bill if it lands on his desk with too much spending.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, however, said that the governor told legislative leaders that if he felt the bill was too big he would trim out projects he did not want.

"I think we've got to do that and move on," he said.

Higher education projects take nearly a third of the House and Senate bills, $322 million. Much of that money would go to repairs and renovations of existing buildings.

One of the big differences is an $89 million project that would double the capacity for sex offenders at a Moose Lake facility. Pawlenty wants the project; the House and Senate do not include it in their bills.

Langseth said the Moose Lake project needs to be examined further. He and others in the Legislature are not sure the expansion is needed.

The Moose Lake facility houses sex offenders who have completed prison terms, but are deemed too dangerous to release.

Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, said the Langseth bill is too large. He said the bill should be limited to state needs, not to what people want, like zoos and entertainment centers.

House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, supports passing a bonding bill early, but added that lawmakers need to make tough decisions about what should be included first. Fixing and upgrading existing infrastructure makes sense but some projects, such as building new community centers, might not.

"In tough economic times you have to make decisions," he said. "You don't want to overbuy so that down the road if things don't improve we can't make our payments."

Hausman said she expected Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, to like her bill because it includes flood prevention funding and money for Moorhead's two state higher education institutions.

But Lanning was not ready to commit.

The bill is too spendy, Lanning said, although he did like flood prevention and college building money.

"There are a lot of good things in this bill," Lanning said. "Personally, I feel the bill is too big."

He prefers borrowing about the same as Pawlenty wants.

While Pawlenty included flood money in his proposal, he did not fund the two Moorhead college and university projects.

Lanning said he already has reduced his askings for flood assistance. Clay County originally wanted $60 million, but the final amount is $38.6 million, included in the $50 million total flood aid in the Hausman and Pawlenty bills.

The House and Pawlenty want to spend $50 million to prevent floods, mostly in northwestern Minnesota, while the Senate bill calls for $70 million. The House measure requires that half of the money be spent on wetlands to hold back water from getting to overflowing rivers, while the Senate and Pawlenty's plans leave that decision up to the Department of Natural Resources.

Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, said the bill would put people back to work.

"Getting folks back to work will be essential for bringing about economic recovery and budget stability," Kubly said.

Davis and Tellijohn report for Forum Communications Co.

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.