Big or moderate bonding bill?
ST. PAUL -- Size matters when it comes to a public works funding bill, but the debate is whether big or not-so-big is better in the current economy.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced Friday that he wants to spend $315 million less to build and repair facilities around Minnesota than legislative leaders want. Republican Pawlenty said he hopes lawmakers approve $685 million in public works spending, to be repaid by tax dollars, while Democratic-Farmer-Labor party legislative leaders prefer spending about $1 billion.
"You have got to be willing to say, 'No,'" Pawlenty said, citing budget problems due to a faltering economy.
Democrats contend that spending more money on constructing college buildings, fixing state facilities' roofs and starting a variety of new projects would put more Minnesotans to work and help the economy.
Nearly a third of Pawlenty's proposal would be spent on colleges and universities, but that still is not enough for supporters of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems.
"He is so chintzy on the MnSCU list," said Sen. Keith Langseth, chairman of the Senate committee that considers public works projects. "That is a state responsibility. Those things will have to be done."
While Pawlenty included projects such as a health and science center at Lake Superior College and a new mechanical technology facility at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College, he zeroed-out most specific college construction requests, including two Moorhead projects in Langseth's district.
"I believe this is responsible," Pawlenty said, indicating that a more modest bill than Democrats want would mean lower costs as Minnesota pays back what it borrows.
Public works projects are funded by the state selling bonds, much like taking out a loan, and repaying them over a period of years with interest.
Pawlenty would spend about 37 percent for new construction, with most of the rest going to repairing and upgrading existing state facilities.
Commissioner Tom Hanson of Minnesota Management and Budget said $193 million of the Pawlenty bonding proposal, 28 percent, would go to greater Minnesota, with $126 million headed for the Twin Cities.
The remaining $364 million, more than half of the total, would go into funds that could to be spent anywhere in the state. For instance, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system would receive $50 million for repairs; lawmakers will not approve specific projects, leaving it up to MnSCU to divide the money.
More than $3 billion of public works requests were presented to the Pawlenty administration and legislators, and some still are coming in as the legislative session nears.
The bill touches on many issues throughout the state.
Helping Red River Valley communities that were flooded last year, as well as preparing for a flood diversion project, would amount to $50 million under Pawlenty's plan.
He also would spend $75 million to repair or replace 960 bridges, $89 million for a new 400-bed Moose Lake sex offender facility and $80 million for a University of Minnesota physics and nanotechnology center in the Twin Cities.
While not part of his Friday proposal, the governor also announced that the state has reached a deal to buy 3,000 acres along Vermilion Lake in northeastern Minnesota for a new state park.
Lawmakers approved the funds in the 2008 bonding bill, but the deal to buy land from U.S. Steel came in above a state appraisal, which Pawlenty said means the Legislature must approve the $18 million purchase price.
The public works bill has been one of the most controversial pieces of legislation each of the governor's eight years in office. This year promises to be no different, with Pawlenty threatening to veto the entire bill, instead of individual projects, if legislators send him a measure he sees as too costly.
House bonding Chairwoman Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, was not happy that Pawlenty skipped over local projects, such as city events centers. The governor said he only supports projects that are of state or strong regional importance.
However, Hausman said, local projects can help a large number of people and produce jobs.
"It is in our best interest to have strong regional economies," she said
Langseth said that since a struggling economy has driven down construction costs, now is a good time for the state to increase public works spending.
Of Pawlenty's threat to veto the entire bonding bill if it comes to him too big, the senator said: "I am not taking it too seriously. He does his thing, we do ours."
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.