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Legislators told of need for infrastructure investment

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, left, talks with Jacki Anderson from Bethesda Foundation and Kandiyohi County Commissioner Roger Imdieke during a visit Wednesday to Ridgewater College in Willmar to discuss legislative issues. Lawmakers heard concerns about infrastructure funding. (Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange)

WILLMAR –– Meeting Wednesday in a newly refurbished student center at Ridgewater College, local legislators highlighted statewide infrastructure investment projects like the college, and heard requests from community leaders for more funded projects.

The Ridgewater College improvement project is an important step in updating the college, said President Doug Allen.

The updated student center was just one part of an ongoing $14 million project on the Willmar campus that also remodeled agriculture and veterinary technology areas. Updates to administrative areas and landscaping are among the tasks remaining.

But Allen encouraged lawmakers to fully fund the Higher Education Asset Preservation and Repair to help Minnesota State Colleges and Universities make vital building improvements, like heating systems and roof repairs.

The current House bonding proposal has $30 million dedicated to Higher Education Asset Preservation and Repair. Allen said $43 million is needed to fund the top priority projects at MnSCU.

Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, said she will “keep fighting” to get funding for Higher Education Asset Preservation and Repair in the bonding bill. Sawatzky said she hopes the bonding bill will be “robust” but said it needs 60 percent support in the House to pass.

Sawatzky and House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, along with Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, used the news conference to summarize action at the Capitol, such as revoking several regressive tax increases to help businesses and middle class families, and increasing the minimum wage which Murphy said will help people who live “week to week and paycheck to paycheck.”  

The trio also listed possible projects that may be included in the bonding bill.

There are currently $4 billion in requests for the bill that may end up being around $850 million, said Koenen.

A decade of tight state spending, a “real entrenched no-new taxes policy,” budget gimmicks and economic recession has been tough on the state, said Murphy.

“We haven’t paid attention to our future,” said Murphy.

But she said the state’s positive economic situation puts it in a good position to catch up on infrastructure needs like transportation.

Kandiyohi County Commissioner Roger Imdieke said there needs to be a “substantial” increase in funding for transportation.

“It’s on the to-do list,” said Murphy.

Sawatzky said she’s proposing a project to complete the four-lane gap on state Highway 23 between New London and St. Cloud.

Now that an environmental study has been approved for the seven-mile stretch between New London and Paynesville, Sawatzky said she’s seeking $3 million in funds to purchase right of way for a future four-lane there.

By aggressively pursuing the study and land purchase, Sawatzky said the project will be “shovel ready” when construction funds are available.

Koenen said a poll shows Minnesotans put transportation improvements high on the priority list, yet put the gas tax near the bottom of desirability. That juxtaposition of wanting better roads but not being willing to pay for them with a gas tax is “perplexing,” said Koenen, adding that new ways to fund transportation will have to be explored.

Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl questioned legislators about funding to extend broadband Internet service to rural parts of the state.

Originally there was $25 million in the bonding bill but now there’s $5 million.

Sawatzy said lessons learned from bringing electricity to all corners of rural Minnesota will be used to bring Internet service to the “last mile” of the state.

Koenen said because bonding money can be used for schools, but not utility cooperatives, there is confusion about how to proceed with funding broadband expansion. “There’s no clear-cut path,” he said.

That uncertainty may result in little or no action.

Legislators also spoke briefly about funding additional efforts with a supplemental budget.

Jacki Anderson, development director with Bethesda Foundation in Willmar, said area nursing homes need an additional 5 percent increase in funding.

Sawatzky said the state’s three-tiered reimbursement system for nursing homes is creating inequity when it comes to how much nursing home workers are paid. She said, for example, a caregiver can make $7 an hour more at a nursing home in Paynesville than at a similar facility a few miles away in New London because of the reimbursement system.

Sawatzky said she met recently with area nursing home workers who were “in tears” because they “work so hard” yet are paid so little.

Willmar City Councilman Denis Anderson asked if there would be increases to Local Government Aid.

Koenen said even with an increase last year in LGA funding from the state, it’s still $200 million less in aid to local governments than it was a decade ago. Koenen said he introduced a bill to increase LGA but it received no hearing.

Lawmakers are on break this week, but when they return to the Capitol next week, the top priority will be finishing up work on the bonding bill.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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