Minnesota Senate presses for $1.16 billion for higher education, transportation, housing

May 06--The Minnesota Senate is seeking $1.16 billion for new higher education construction, economic development initiatives and the largest-ever investment in affordable housing.

"We had to make some tough decisions on a number of worthy projects, but I am confident we have the best bill that improves the quality of life in Minnesota," said LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, chairman of the Senate Capital Investment Committee.

Senate DFLers released the mammoth bonding proposal Monday with just two weeks left in the legislative session. Lawmakers now must race to work out differences with the House as DFL and GOP leaders negotiate behind the scenes to see if they can agree on a higher spending number. The statewide construction measure is a crucial component that remains unfinished as legislators head toward the mandatory May 19 adjournment.

Several Republicans summoned reporters to a news conference Monday to say they oppose any additional spending. They said the proposal shows Democrats' misplaced priorities, preferring cultural amenities in the Twin Cities over projects that could be transformative in rural areas, like a water pipeline in southwestern Minnesota. The bonding measure includes a range of projects, from road and bridge improvements and convention centers to improvements to the aging Nicollet Mall and the Minnesota Zoo.

"Shouldn't we be having to fund those critical needs first?" asked state Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, who is the GOP's lead on construction investment measures. "We should stick to our guns" on the borrowing level, he said.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton wants to spend more, about $1.2 billion, and scolded Republicans for insisting on the lower number.

"The bonding bill is certainly constrained by the Republicans' ideological obsession with doing and spending as little as possible," Dayton said.

The governor said he would be glad to fully fund the $69 million southwestern Minnesota water project if Republicans would agree to more spending. He said the state's strengthening economy leaves ample money in the budget to pay for the extra borrowing and the level of need across the state is great.

Dayton drafted a letter to legislative leaders, placing blame squarely on Republicans.

"I recognize your difficult predicament on the size of the bonding bill, due to Republicans' intransigence," Dayton wrote. He noted that the state's finances have had a dramatic rebound since last year, replacing a deficit and with a significant surplus. "It is contrary to sound fiscal policy and a shallow claim of virtue" for Republicans to refuse to go higher.

Senate DFLers want to spend $411 million on economic development projects, including roads and bridges. They are seeking $298 million on state universities and colleges, along with another $80 million in new housing around the state.

"Affordable and available housing is a cornerstone of strong economic development and a strong middle class," Stumpf said Monday.

Senate DFLers unveiled the measure after touring the state and looking at more than $3 billion in projects vying for funding. The Minnesota House has already released its proposal and now the leaders from the two bodies will meet to merge the two plans.

Senate Democrats said the measure puts important projects in every corner of the state, creating 28,000 jobs and adding more than $1.1 billion in personal income.

The measure includes long-sought money for civic centers in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud. The Minnesota Children's Museum would get $14 million and the Minnesota Zoo would get another $10 million under the proposal. Duluth would get $6 million to renovate the historic NorShor Theatre and Minneapolis would see $20 million to ??revitalize Nicollet Mall.

Senate Democrats also want $56 million to remodel the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, millions for Metropolitan Council transit projects and $15 million for a new Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul.

To pay for all the new construction, the Senate is seeking $846 million in state-backed debt and another $200 million in cash.

DFL and Republican leaders signed an agreement last year sticking to less than $850 million in borrowing. State borrowing requires a supermajority of votes, so the agreement is rock-solid unless the GOP agrees to borrow more.

Democrats can pass the cash portion without a single Republican vote, and that money is already causing friction with Republicans.

Stumpf's proposal includes $126 million in cash to finish the comprehensive Capitol restoration, which has broad political support and which Republicans had wanted in the borrowing portion.

The measure continues to evolve rapidly at the Capitol. The Minnesota House completely revised its proposal Monday afternoon, but still differs significantly from the Senate version.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee, said she was disappointed that the Senate version does not include nearly $50 million to overhaul the aging Bell Museum of Natural History.

She said she will continue to fight for that project until the gavel drops to end the session. "We have failed for 10 years to deal with that," Hausman said.

Baird Helgeson -- 651-925-5044

Copyright 2014 - Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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