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Minnesota House Defeats Construction Projects Bill

Multiple projects are thrown into limbo as gridlock stalls an $800 million construction bill.

Thu June 06, 2013 - Midwest Edition

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) A state Capitol facelift, college campus building projects and regional civic center upgrades got thrown in limbo May 17 when the Minnesota House failed to muster enough votes for an $800 million construction bill.

The bill fell five votes short of an 81-vote supermajority needed for passage, a rare area where Republicans wielded veto power in a state government controlled by Democrats. The bill involved selling long-term bonds, which subjects it to a three-fifths threshold for passage. Its failure left a major renovation of the Capitol, already well under way, in question with just over three days left in the session.

“Just one word: Tragic,’’ said Rep. Alice Hausman, the St. Paul Democrat who sponsored the measure. Hausman said a handful of Republicans who voted no had promised their support.

Construction bills often win backing from both parties for their ability to generate local construction jobs and spread dollars to communities around the state. In addition to getting stymied on that bill, Democratic legislative leaders also abandoned another goal of many in the party: increases in the state gas tax and the Twin Cities metro area sales tax to pay for road and transit projects, which struggled after Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton refused to support the gas tax hike.

Both the House and Senate worked into the night May 17, rushing to finish the state budget before the late May 20 deadline for adjourning the regular session. The House voted 73-61 in favor of the health and human services budget late on May 17, one of the biggest chunks of state spending. The massive document, finalized in recent days by House and Senate negotiators, includes a 5-percent pay increase for nursing home workers.

The Legislature also sent Dayton a higher education budget that includes a tuition freeze at public colleges and universities, puts more money into state grants to students, and grants resident tuition to the children of immigrants who are not documented.

While that bill won some Republican backing, the construction bill spurred partisan rancor in the House. Only three Republicans voted for the bill; Hausman said she had commitments of support from eight, which would have been enough to pass the bill; she wouldn’t name who reneged.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, rose angrily before the vote to complain that the fate of natural disaster aid for his southern Minnesota area was tied to the legislation.

“We are being held hostage,’’ Hamilton said. He voted against the bill.

GOP leaders had insisted for days that they wouldn’t go along with a bill they considered too bulky.

“Time is running out and we shouldn’t be distracted with borrowing huge amounts of money right now on the state’s credit card,’’ said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

Hausman said she wouldn’t try to revive the bill. But few major bills are truly dead in the final hours of a legislative session. Lawmakers were preparing to work through the weekend, with late and even overnight sessions possible.

The state Capitol renovation project was the largest in the construction bill, consuming $109 million. Those overseeing the building work say the money is needed this year to avoid costly delays. Dayton and a bipartisan slate of lawmakers are on record supporting the fix-up to the 107-year-old state Capitol, where safety concerns have been patched over for years.

Lawmakers could insert money for the project in budget bills that haven’t reached the floor yet.

Daudt wouldn’t rule that out. “If they want to talk about an alternate plan, I’m happy to come to the table,’’ he said.

Hausman said she didn’t support borrowing for the Capitol renovation project separately.

“The Capitol is a noble project, an important project. We should do it,’’ she said. “But why is it more important than higher education, building laboratories and classrooms for all of our kids in the state?’’

The vote against the bonding bill, as it is known, could carry political risks. Several Republicans voted against a plan for wastewater treatment and flood mitigation projects in their districts, and several were under pressure from local business groups to support civic center renovations in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud. Some of the nearly $200 million in college campus projects are in districts represented by Republicans.

Most of them will have another shot to advance the hometown projects before the next election. Big bonding bills usually are considered in election-year sessions.

But proponents of the defeated measure said forgoing a bill this year will come at a cost. There’s no guarantee that currently low interest rates, which make construction dollars go further, will stay that way.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said the projects would come at a perfect time in the state’s economic recovery.

“We have many Minnesotans in the construction industry and the various support industries who are ready, willing and able to go to work,’’ he said.

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