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Minnesota Project Funding Debate in Full Swing Between House, Senate

Communities that are getting up to 150 years old need a recommitment from the state legislature in order to keep things running smoothly.

Wed May 21, 2014 - Midwest Edition

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) Minnesota House and Senate leaders put forward separate proposals May 5 that commit $1.1 billion in public financing for projects ranging from college building renovations to theater restorations, but they differ on some of the details about where limited construction dollars should go.

After weeks of waiting, Democratic leaders of the state Senate released their plan for borrowing of $846 million and for using about $200 million in cash from the state’s $1.2 billion budget surplus. House leaders revised their prior proposal to match the Senate in size, though what gets funded differs. Gov. Mark Dayton, meanwhile, reiterated his pitch for a bigger plan given low interest rates and a long to-do list.

As they stand now, the House and Senate would enter final negotiations needing to sort out whether to spend money to outfit Minnesota’s newest state park, to pipe water into southern Minnesota and to reconstruct the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History in St. Paul. Those are among the big differences, with plenty of smaller ones throughout the two bills.

Senate Capital Investment Committee Chairman LeRoy Stumpf said there were far more worthy projects than money to go around. He said the bill emphasizes repairs to crumbling infrastructure while also making room for cultural amenities.

"A lot of our communities are getting up to 125, 150 years old and stuff doesn’t last forever. We have to make a recommitment as a Legislature to figure out how to fund these core things you need to run,’ said Stumpf, DFL-Plummer. "You need to have development. You need housing. You need roads. You need bridges.’

The measure is one of a few major bills that lawmakers hope to pass before adjourning their election-year session. Majority Democrats in the House and Senate need some Republican votes to meet a three-fifths passing threshold on the borrowing plan. The separate but connected cash bill requires only a simple majority.

Republicans said that projects they see as vital — such as pothole repair money or full funding for a water pipeline in southern Minnesota — have been crowded out by frilly items, such as zoo exhibits or ski hill enhancements.

"Bonding is debt. It’s borrowing. It has to be repaid,’ said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. "So we must be smart about how we use that money.’

Minnesota has more than $6.2 billion in outstanding general obligation debt already, but state finance guidelines leave plenty of room to borrow billions more.

Dayton said he wants a borrowing bill of $1.2 billion.

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

Colleges are among the biggest recipients of money — for science labs, student centers and maintenance of the buildings they already have. The largest single item in either proposal is $126 million to finish the Capitol renovation; the Senate’s plan would pay for that in cash while the House tucks it into the borrowing package.

There’s $80 million devoted to affordable housing projects in the Senate, which Stumpf said represents the largest investment of that type in state history. The Senate proposal is more generous than recommendations in the House and from Dayton on that front.

The Senate bill also authorizes money to build out the new state park at Lake Vermilion, to repair local bridges and to remodel the state’s security hospital in St. Peter. Civic center upgrades in Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato would get a boost, as would theater repairs across the state. Most of those are in the House version, too.

Among the proposals from Dayton, the House and the Senate, one of the key variations surrounds the Lewis and Clark water pipeline project for southwestern Minnesota. Dayton has highlighted the need to put at least $20 million and up to $70 million in for that project to help bring water from the Missouri River to a parched section of the state.

The Senate bill puts in only $13 million, though Stumpf said there is a potential $7 million local match. Federal money also is a possibility. The House version leaves it out entirely.

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