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Governor focuses on bridges in bonding bill

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to borrow millions to fix local bridges across Minnesota. Democrats, however, say higher gasoline and other taxes would be a better way to fund transportation needs. The Republican governor proposed on Monday t...

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to borrow millions to fix local bridges across Minnesota.

Democrats, however, say higher gasoline and other taxes would be a better way to fund transportation needs.

The Republican governor proposed on Monday to spend $416 million for transportation projects out of a proposal that tops $1 billion. Of that, $965 million would be repaid by general taxes. The remainder would be funded by cash and other revenue.

The transportation funding includes $225 million Pawlenty said would provide the state portion of funding needed to replace 600 city, county and township bridges in light of the Aug. 1 Minneapolis bridge collapse. Local and federal funds also would be needed to build the bridges.

"Obviously, there is a heightened concern about bridge safety," Pawlenty said in announcing his public works proposals -- funded by the state selling bonds -- to be considered during a legislative session beginning Feb. 12.

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Nearly 40 percent of Pawlenty's proposal would fund transportation, with local bridges dominating.

Democrats renewed calls for a transportation funding bill raising gasoline and other taxes to infuse highway and transit systems with money.

"We need a comprehensive transportation bill that goes year after year," Senate public works chairman Sen. Keith Langseth said, noting that the governor's proposal would provide money just once.

Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, and his House counterpart, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said they are happy Pawlenty proposes borrowing the maximum allowed under state policy.

More than $3.4 billion in projects were requested by state and local agencies.

. Environment and outdoors projects would take 16 percent of the Pawlenty proposal. Outdoors enthusiasts said that is too little.

"Minnesota's great outdoors does not receive its fair share in the governor's bonding recommendations," said Steve Morris, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. "The governor recommended less than 30 percent of what MEP's member groups have requested."

Most bonding discussion likely will center of Pawlenty's plan to borrow money to replace local bridges.

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Langseth said Pawlenty is seeking bridge money as political cover following the bridge collapse and past vetoes of transportation funding bills.

The senator also said local governments are not ready to spend all the $225 million in the next two years. Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said Pawlenty is using the bonding bill to hide the fact that he lacks a comprehensive plan to pay for road and bridge improvements.

The governor made the issue political, Murphy said, by highlighting several bridge projects that would receive funding under his plan. Most are located in Democrats' legislative districts, including Murphy's.

"He's trying to buy political cover and he's not willing to pay for it," said Murphy, who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Other projects Pawlenty included are attached to colleges or universities.

One that did make the cut was a $9 million plan to build an addition to Bemidji State University's Sattgast Science Building addition. It will house updated biology and chemistry space. Existing space will be transferred to nursing, botany and other science programs.

A long-sought $96 million addition to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center probably will pass this year, Langseth said. Pawlenty included it in his bonding proposal and most legislative leaders long have said they support it, but the proposal has fallen through the cracks in recent years.

A civil engineering building addition at the University of Duluth was slated for $10 million under Pawlenty's plan.

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The University of Minnesota Morris would receive $5 million to renovate its community services building.

Pawlenty's bonding proposal includes roughly $42 million for work at state veterans' homes, but the funding is disproportionately targeted for a Minneapolis facility, said Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar.

Juhnke, who leads a House committee handling veterans program spending, said rural facilities such as those in Willmar, Fergus Falls and Silver Bay deserve more funding. There are more rural Minnesotans serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than there are troops from the Twin Cities, he said.

"It's really weighted heavily to one area of the state," Juhnke said.

State capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

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