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House Republicans urge Pawlenty to make big cuts in bonding bill

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Rep. Kurt Zellers
House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers, pictured in this 2009 file photo, sent a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty asking the governor to make steep cuts in the state's construction projects bill.
MPR Photo/Tom Sheck

Republicans in the Minnesota House are privately urging Gov. Tim Pawlenty to be extra aggressive when he cuts down a $1 billion bonding bill through line item vetoes.

They're suggesting Pawlenty eliminate about 80 percent of the public construction projects in the bill so that more bonding negotiations can take place later in the session. They say that will help put pressure on Democrats to work on a broader budget fix. 

Of the 47 members in the House Republican caucus, 44 signed a letter to Governor Pawlenty recommending a severe response to the bonding bill. They want him to cut it  from about $1 billion to less than $250 million. The letter, obtained by MPR News, said the bloated bill needs "fiscal liposuction."

House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove declined to share the letter but he confirmed its basic message.

"It's just our encouragement of his fiscally responsible position that he's maintained all along," Zellers said.

The DFL House and Senate passed the retooled bonding bill Thursday and sent it to Pawlenty. Earlier in the week, the Republican governor backed off a threat to veto the entire bill and said he would instead trim it down with line-tem vetoes. 

DFL negotiators added some key projects Pawlenty wanted, including an expansion of the Moose Lake sex offender treatment facility and a fence upgrade at the Oak Park Heights prison. 

But Zellers contends the bill should never have been finalized until there was a clearer plan for solving the state's nearly $1 billion budget deficit. He said a smaller bonding bill now could lead to a second bonding bill, and more negotiations later. 

"Fiscal sanity is what we're asking for here," Zellers said. "Be honest with the taxpayers. Before you spend a billion of their money, make sure you balance the billion you already owe."

House Republicans turned to Rep. Larry Howes of Walker, who served on the bonding bill conference committee, to come up with their $250 million recommendation. Howes said he reluctantly came up with a pared down list that includes money for flood mitigation, water treatment, roads and bridges, as well as Moose Lake and Oak Park Heights.

"I was told by my caucus to do it and I'll support my caucus," Howes said. "Personally, I'm not that confident that it's necessarily the right thing to do, but I'll remain a team player for now and do what I'm supposed to do."

Howes said some of his colleagues are worried that with a big bonding bill signed, DFLers might want to adjourn early and leave the budget balancing to the governor. Howes said he wants a fiscally responsible bonding bill too, but he thinks that could be accomplished at about $775 million.

Some Republicans are urging Pawlenty to stick with his earlier threat to veto the entire bonding bill, and they were disappointed when he backed off. Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, said Pawlenty needs to do a better job communicating with House Republicans.

"There is some frustration out there. Does that mean that other veto overrides might go forward? I would hope not, but this has to be a shared partnership," he said. "Our strength lies with sticking with the governor and hopefully vice versa."

Pawlenty was in Florida for the weekend for a mix of politics and family time. The governor has until midnight Monday to take action on the bill. 

Pawlenty's spokesman said the governor will exercise his line-item veto authority to cut its size but didn't say how much.

Meanwhile, DFL legislators are also offering advice to the governor.

"You know what? I don't think he should cut anything," said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. 

House and Senate negotiators already made significant cuts in the bill to accommodate projects requested by the governor, Tomassoni said, adding the bill represents a good compromise in its current form. 

"Talk to people around the state and see how important these projects are, and see who's going to go to work," he said. "And now is the time to build because everything is right. We need jobs, the interest rates are low and the cost of materials is low. All of these projects will eventually get done, and now is the time to do it."

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher agreed. She said the bonding bill in its current form will result in more than 21,000 jobs statewide. 

Kelliher, who's a DFL candidate for governor, said the GOP claim that Democrats don't want to balance the budget is not based in reality. 

Committees in the House and Senate have already started work on the first phase of a plan to erase the deficit.