With many unfinished bonding projects, is a new bill needed?by Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The effort to pass a public works construction bill appears to be in disarray at the State Capitol as time grows short in the session.
Gov. Mark Dayton says he wants a bonding bill to create jobs, but there are dozens of projects on the books from previous years that haven't started yet. That is leaving some to wonder whether a bonding bill is needed.
Public works bonding bills are typically the main order of business during even-year legislative sessions. Usually, it's a time when members can show bipartisanship and get behind a bill that focuses on the state's infrastructure. It also allows members to approve projects in their own districts that could help them with re-election.
The struggling economy and a high unemployment rate among construction workers has added some urgency to this year's bonding effort. Dayton said in January that his $775 million bonding bill would put people to work.
"Unemployed Minnesotans need jobs now, not next year," Dayton said. "It's our responsibility here are the Capitol to work on the people's timetable, not our own. The time to act is now."
Dayton and DFL lawmakers have relied on that talking point for months. They have called the bonding bill one of their key job-creation proposals of the year.
There's just one problem. The state has already authorized hundreds of millions of dollars worth of projects where construction hasn't yet started. Republican Rep. Larry Howes of Walker said he'd like to see that money get spent.
Minnesota House Republicans are trying a new approach, proposing a $434 million bill that would include the State Capitol renovations that lawmakers narrowly rejected in a separate bill on Thursday. The amendment was unveiled today in the House Ways and Means Committee. Their plan would again provide $221 million for the Capitol, and $213 million dollars for other projects.
Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, complained that the bill is too small.
"The question is, what road are we on here?" Carlson said. "Instead of, at least from my perspective, improving, moving toward the higher level of bonding that I've advocated for both in your committee and on the House floor, we're going the other way."
Howes said he understands concerns that the bonding bill proposal doesn't spend enough but he said he's trying to set up three-way negotiations with the Senate and the governor.
"Everyone knows what we have sitting on the shelf," Howes said. "It's almost $2 billion worth of projects that supposedly create jobs, but the only job created is the janitor's to dust off the bills that are sitting there."
Howes, who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee, said he understands that some of the projects need matching funds, further design work or permit approvals. But he said no one should promise that a bonding bill will mean instant jobs for construction workers.
"When this bill is signed by the governor, it will put architects and engineers to work almost immediately," Howes said. "You have to have the plans, the engineering, etc. before you can lift a paintbrush or a shovel. That's just the facts."
Officials with Minnesota Management and Budget quibble with the $2 billion number but could not produce a figure in time for this story. They do not quibble with the notion that there are authorized projects where construction has not started.
Dayton also acknowledged that some projects haven't been started yet. But he said lawmakers should still pass a bonding bill to keep a continuous flow of projects in the pipeline.
"We focus on projects that are ready to go," Dayton said. "If it takes two years to get going then two years from now there will be more people working."
But there's no certainty that the Legislature will pass a bonding bill this year. A $221 million proposal to restore the State Capitol failed in the House by one vote. Republicans in the Senate have delayed acting on their bonding bill because they aren't sure they have the votes to pass it.
The last time the Legislature didn't pass a bonding bill in an even-year session was in 2004. But this Legislature did pass a bonding bill last year. Dayton insisted on the $500-million measure as part of the budget agreement that ended the state government shutdown.
- All Things Considered, 04/20/2012, 5:24 p.m.