Legislative leaders start planning for economic stimulus

Margaret Anderson Kelliher
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher says that legislator need to send a message that the state has plan for any economic stimulus money it receives from the federal government.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

President-elect Barack Obama says he wants quick action on a federal spending plan designed to jump-start the nation's sputtering economy. Details of the package, which is expected to total nearly $800 billion, remain sketchy. But a big chunk of the money will likely be targeted to states for the construction of roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects.

State Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel says his agency has been looking at possible projects and developing guidelines for using the federal money. But Sorel says there's not a lot more he can do at this point.

"It's a moving target. The guidelines change everyday. And so there is no definitive list at this point, because we don't know what the criteria will be," said Sorel. "We don't even know -- there's discussion about how the money will come. It may not all come through a state DOT. It may come through other ways. We don't know answers to that at this point."

Sorel's boss, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has said he doesn't like the idea of the federal government ringing up more debt, but he's ready and willing to accept Minnesota's share of an economic stimulus bill.

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State legislators are ready too. They've introduced bills for a Minnesota economic recovery package that would supplement the still unknown amount of federal aid.

State Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm), chairman of the Senate's economic development budget division, says Senate File 1 is all about creating jobs.

"From everything that we've been hearing, the Obama administration would like to be able to get jobs on the ground as soon as possible. And having projects ready to go will probably determine how much money we get in the stimulus package. And so I think what we're doing here is we're making a statement that we're going to whatever we need to do to make sure we can maximize whatever federal money we can get to get people working, get people back to work," said Tomassoni.

But at this point, Tomassoni's bill offers little more than a statement. There are vague references to promoting a green economy, augmenting federal funds with state spending and bonding for public works projects, including roads, sewers, parks and trails. But no projects are listed, and the sections that appropriate money and authorizes bonding remain blank.

Republicans are skeptical of the plan. With a $4.8 billion budget deficit projected for the next two-year budget cycle, State Sen. David Hann (R-Eden Prairie) says the state cannot afford more spending or debt.

"I think most of us are not strong believers that government spending is the way to solve the economic situation that we're in. We have to look at private sector investment and encouraging that, and I think that requires something other than public spending," said Hann.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Minneapolis) says the legislation is a work in progress that will be built by committees in the coming weeks. But until details of the federal plan are revealed, Kelliher says the Minnesota bill sends an important message to the president-elect and the Congress.

"We would like your help. We frankly need your help. We want to accept the dollars in the way that's going to best help Minnesotans here, and we want to work with you to shape that in a way that both helps us retain jobs and then builds into the future," said Kelliher.

Kelliher will travel to Washington, D.C., next week for the Obama inaugural. During that time, she says she'll meet with members of the state's congressional delegation to further discuss the economic stimulus plan.