Senate passes bonding billby Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Senate took unusually quick action Thursday to pass the primary legislation of this year's session, a bill authorizing the state to borrow money for construction projects. The action came after days of controversy over comments by the DFL Senate majority leader. But there was little controversy over the bonding bill. Senators overwhelmingly passed the $990 million borrowing package with little debate. But the road ahead won't be quite as smooth.
St. Paul, Minn. — It took less than an hour for the Senate to discuss and pass a bill authorizing almost $1 billion worth of state borrowing. The legislation was released to the public less than two days ago, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson noted the bill's speedy passage.
"We've been in session 23 days, calendar days, and this is unprecedented in the state's history. Because we are addressing, members of the session, the No. 1 issue why we are in this session in 2006," said Johnson.
The Willmar DFLer was also eager to change the focus at the Capitol from the controversy over his own comments. Johnson has admitted "sanding off the truth" about conversations with Supreme Court justices regarding the state's law banning gay marriage.
Johnson says the new capital investment bill will create jobs and improve the state's infrastructure. It would fund projects at state colleges and universities, prisons, parks, trails, roads, bridges and state buildings.
The bill is about $145 million larger than Gov. Pawlenty's proposal. Pawlenty has said his plan is big enough, and the Senate bill is too hefty. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL- Glyndon, takes pride in Pawlenty's characterization of both his bill and himself.
"He referred to me as 'Senator Maximum.' That's fine -- I should get a pin that says that," said Langseth. "He said it was said in respect, so I take it respectfully."
About one-third of Langseth's bill would go to higher education. It would authorize the state to borrow more than $375 million for projects at the University of Minnesota and the MnSCU system.
The bill includes $60 million for the Northstar commuter rail line, and more than $40 million for a Moose Lake facility for dangerous sex offenders. There's also money for the Schubert Theater in Minneapolis and the Ordway Center in St. Paul - projects that are not funded in the governor's proposal.
Not one senator spoke out against Langseth's bill on the floor, and only nine Republicans voted against it. One of them was Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, who says the bill adds too much debt to the state's credit card.
"I'd like to see a little less money spent, and a little bit more redirection at things like the prisons and the truck stations -- big infrastructure projects that will also serve my community," said Ortman.
Ortman doesn't have any bonding projects in her district, but many legislators do, which is why the bill usually gets broad bipartisan support in an election year.
Two years ago, lawmakers failed to agree on a bonding bill, and legislators don't want that to happen again this year. Langseth wants the bill to be on the governor's desk by Easter, and he's trying to prod the House to pass its bonding package quickly.
House Republicans haven't released their proposal yet, but GOP leaders say they're surprised by a couple of omissions in the Senate bill.
Rep Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee, says Langseth doesn't include funding for the department of corrections' top priority, the second phase of an expansion of the Faribault prison.
"Unless we change our laws and stop locking up as many people, then we're going to have to be big boys and girls and also make sure that there are bed spaces available for the prisoners," Dorman said.
Dorman says he's also surprised the Senate passed a DFL-sponsored bill that doesn't include any money to expand the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
"Here you got Duluth's No. 1 priority, the Range, Duluth, last time I checked still dominated by only one political party, and they're not in there," said Dorman. "I think that has a lot to do with the fact that since the governor came out in favor of it, then he expects the governor to do heavy lifting."
Since the Duluth project is not in the Senate bill, Pawlenty will have to convince the Republican-controlled House to include funding for it, or it's dead for the session.
Dorman says politics are always involved in the selection of projects in the bonding bill, and he joked that there might even be some political decisions in his bill as well.
Dorman says he plans to release his bill the first week of April, and says it will put more emphasis on roads and bridges. Dorman says while his bill won't be as large as Langseth's, it will top $900 million.