House passes $1B bond plan after gorilla fight

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Supporters of the bonding bill say quick passage could give construction workers jobs during tough economic times.

Bill author Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul said the bulk of the funding - $350 million -- will be dedicated to public colleges and universities. Environmental projects are second on the list. The bill also appropriates $70 million for the Central Corridor Light Rail line between St. Paul and Minneapolis.

"We always have talked about the bonding bill as the jobs bill," Hausman said. "We used to say a $1 billion bonding bill put about 10,000 people to work. It's hard to quantify that but we can certainly say thousands and thousands."

While supporters of the borrowing bill call it an economic development bill, critics focused on what they said were misplaced priorities on primates and pork.

"Members we have a choice. You can pick the school kids of Minnesota or you can pick the gorillas," said House Minority Leader Marty Seifert.

"You can pick the school kids of Minnesota or you can pick the gorillas."

Seifert and several of his Republican colleagues worked to take out $11 million to renovate the polar bear and gorilla exhibits at St. Paul's Como Park Zoo and use the money for transportation, school improvements and wastewater treatment centers.

All of those proposals were defeated, but the effort may have accomplished its intended goal -- to get many of the DFL lawmakers to take votes that could end up on campaign material this election season.

Seifert said the gorilla house was too lavish.

"What kind of house could you build for $500 thousand? A pretty darn nice one," he said. "Hot tubs, bedrooms, brass, granite, garages. The whole nine yards. Now I want you to think what we're doing for the gorillas for a moment. Eleven million taxpayer hard earned dollars."

Several lawmakers pointed out that Gov. Tim Pawlenty supported borrowing for the Minnesota Zoo in 2004. Others said Seifert wouldn't need the amendment if he and Pawlenty didn't use guerilla warfare in previous budget proposals.

Hausman, whose district includes Como Park, fought fiercely for the funding for the zoo. She said Como Zoo is the number one family destination in Minnesota with more than 1.7 million visitors a year, and that many of those are school children who visit the zoo on field trips.

"And those buses come from everywhere," she said. "From everywhere. By the thousands. And in this case, one of the things they learn about is an animal that's endangered by climate change, the polar bear. It is part of what they come for. They come for fun and believe it or not while they come for fun they also get a little bit of education."

Hausman also said the funding for the zoo is only a small portion of a bill that finances many things, including transit projects, a biosciences center for the University of Minnesota and arenas in Duluth, Bemidji and St. Cloud.

Some Republicans questioned claims that the bonding bill is a jobs bill. Rep. John Berns, R-Wayzata, said many of those struggling to find a job won't get one because of the bonding bill.

"But to call this a jobs bill and not a construction jobs bill is a little bit misleading because this bill will not provide a job to my neighbor who doesn't work in the construction industry who needs a job," he said.

The $960 million bonding bill now has to be reconciled with a slightly larger Senate version. Gov. Pawlenty originally proposed a similar sized bill but is now calling for the price-tag to be no larger than $825 million.

Hausman said she expects to scale down the size of the House bill to meet Pawlenty's demands. But Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, isn't so willing.

"The governor's idea of compromise is 'here's what it's going to be, and I'll veto it if it goes above that,'" He said. "That isn't compromise."

Both Langseth and Hausman say they will begin negotiating their differences on the bill as soon as Friday. Both hope to get the bill to the governor by Mar. 15.

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