Republicans in the Minnesota House propose borrowing $500 million for public works projects across the state. Their proposal has two parts: repairing the aging state Capitol building, and mostly renovating and repairing existing buildings across the state.
But a bipartisan group of lawmakers is critical of the plan, which they say spends too much on the Capitol.
House Republicans have introduced two bonding bills. One would dedicate $221 million to renovate the state Capitol. The second bill would spend $280 million on other projects across the state. It would help maintain buildings at the state's colleges and universities, repair local roads and bridges and pay for projects that include a new ballpark for the St. Paul Saints and civic center improvements in St. Cloud.
State Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said separating the two bills because he believes the public wants the state Capitol fixed.
"I think it's good to show that we want to fix the people's house," Howes said. "I'm getting reaction from everyone statewide, even the most conservative folks I know and they say 'Let's fix the Capitol.' So that's a priority with the people."
There is bipartisan agreement that the Capitol needs work, but not on how much money should be spent this year to do it.
Howes said he'd prefer to dedicate all of the money for the project in one bill and make the payments over the next four years. He has the support of Gov. Mark Dayton, who said on Monday that he believes lawmakers should vote separately on one bill that renovates the Capitol and another that borrows money for other projects.
"This is a once in a century kind of investment. It's a major investment," Dayton said. "It's for the people's Capitol for the next 100 years, so it shouldn't be lumped in shorter term projects that are also essential."
Dayton proposed a much bigger package of public works improvements that he said would create jobs in the struggling construction sector. His bonding plan would cost $775 million, not including the Capitol building renovation. His spokeswoman said his plan would put people back to work while the House Republican plan would leave them on the bench.
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said he supports the size of the House plan but disagrees with focusing so much money on the Capitol. Senjem, who chairs the Senate Capital Investment Committee, said he thinks the Senate will propose spending about $20 million on the Capitol renovation.
"We'll probably have more local projects — local in the sense of wastewater, flood infrastructure, bridges, that kind of stuff," he said.
Senjem said he expects to release his plan within a week.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the House are balking at how House Republicans crafted their legislation.
"They haven't consulted with the Democrats at all in terms of putting it together, so until that happens they're going to have a hard time getting Democratic votes," said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
Thissen said he thinks House Republicans want to spend too much money on renovating the Capitol and not enough on other projects across the state. He added that their plan seems to place a higher priority in rewarding GOP lawmakers than on solving real problems.
"It underfunds just about anything," he said. "It throws little bits of money to a bunch of projects that is not actually going to solve anything."
As an example of the GOP plan's priorities, Thissen cited a dolphin tank at the Minnesota Zoo requested by state Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley. Thissen said Republicans give more weight to it than a job training program requested by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
Thissen and other Democrats have a bit more power than usual in the bonding debate because three-fifths of House and Senate members must pass a bonding bill. The supermajority requirement means the bill has to attract some DFL support.
Howes said he understands he'll need DFL votes, but he said the Legislature passed a $500 million bonding bill last year so it's less of a priority for his caucus this session. He said Democrats shouldn't push too hard for more state spending they may not get a bonding bill at all.
If Democrats want to oppose the bonding bills and spend more, Howes said, the Legislature will adjourn without passing them. That would mean neither Republicans nor Democrats could tout local construction projects in their campaigns.