Big borrowing bill sails through Minnesota Houseby Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
As Minnesota lawmakers head home for the Easter-Passover break, they can bring back the promise of gifts in the form of about $1 billion in construction projects. The House overwhelmingly passed a bonding bill that would authorize the state to borrow about $950 million for public works projects. The Senate has already passed a similar bill with almost $1 billion in state borrowing. Legislative leaders say when they come back to the Capitol next week, they'll try to quickly reconcile the two measures, which represent the main task of the session.
St. Paul, Minn. — The bonding bill usually gets widespread support, because many lawmakers want funding for projects in their district. This year lawmakers are even more excited about the bonding bill. Most are running for re-election and want to show voters they can work together to get something done. They're hoping their constituents forget about last year's budget stalemate and government shutdown, and the gridlock the previous year, when lawmakers couldn't agree on a bonding bill.
Before the House passed this year's bonding bill by a vote of 114-to-16, DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul said he and many legislators looked forward to voting for the bill.
"And when we leave now for the Easter/Passover break, we know we can at least have made a bipartisan commitment to growing Minnesota, to making it better, to improving our state, and I hope for the remainder of the session, working in a strong and bipartisan way," he said.
"If this is the only thing we get done this session and we go home, that's not a bad thing," added the bill's sponsor, Republican Dan Dorman of Albert Lea, who says the bonding bill is the main priority of the session, and as long as the Legislature can accomplish that.
"I think we can all run for re-election and be just fine," he said.
Dorman says his bill got overwhelming support because it takes "a balanced approach." He says about a third of the bill's projects are in rural Minnesota, about a third are in the metropolitan area and about a third are statewide initiatives.
The bill includes about $300 million worth of projects at state colleges and universities. It would fund projects at state prisons, zoos, parks, state buildings, local roads and bridges.
The bill also contains $50 million for the Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake. Northstar opponents tried repeatedly during debate on the House floor to regulate spending on the line, but most of their attempts failed. One successful amendment would free up the Northstar money for road projects if the rail line fails to meet certain milestones by September.
One of the bill's few "no" votes came from Republican Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud. He says the bill puts too much debt on the state credit card. Knoblach also singled out one project for criticism: $11 million to renovate the Shubert Theater in Minneapolis.
"If you go in here, all you see is a couple of balconies that are covered with bird poop from all the birds that were flying into the thing over the years, and then a little dinky front lobby area which is nowhere big enough to serve the needs of the theater, which is why they have to build something next door," he said.
The Shubert is the number-one bonding priority for the city of Minneapolis. Despite Knoblach's concerns about the bill, neither he nor anyone else tried to significantly scale back the bill's size.
When lawmakers return from their five-day break, negotiators from the House and Senate could begin meeting soon to resolve differences between the two bonding bills. They are about $40 million apart; much closer than in recent years.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar was optimistic about the chances for a relatively speedy agreement.
"It has very positive signs of being productive and being completed," he said.
Once the Legislature agrees on a bonding package, House leaders say they may adjourn for the year, even if other issues are unresolved.