Minn. House passes bonding bill 99-32

Capitol renovation
State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, shows off a piece of stone that had fallen off of the state's Capitol in this photo from May 3, 2012. Money to pay for some repairs of the Capitol building is included in the bonding bill approved by the House Monday May 7, 2012, and sent to the Senate for action.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The Vikings stadium bill is looming large at the State Capitol Monday, but lawmakers were also dealing with other big issues.

The House passed a $496 million bonding bill on a 99-32 vote. The package of public construction projects was sent on to the Senate for action.

Bonding bills are traditionally heavy on construction and remodeling projects on college campuses. This year's version includes $132 million for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and $64 million for the University of Minnesota.

There's also $49 million for roads and bridges, $30 million for flood mitigation and $44 million to begin renovation work on the State Capitol building.

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Bonding bills are big deals. But Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, chair of the House Capital Investment Committee, acknowledged that this bill was being overshadowed by the Vikings stadium debate.

"Right now I feel more like the pre-game show for Monday Night Football," he said. Lawmakers left out several local projects, including civic center expansions in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud.

But Howes explained that those projects, as well as others around the state, would be eligible for a new program under the Department of Employment and Economic Development. He said the bonding bill designates $50 million to that program.

"We felt that this was a way that Greater Minnesota -- who probably many times don't have lobbyists to come here and speak for them -- have an opportunity through DEED to apply, meet the criteria and possibly get a project for their town or city," said Howes.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, called the provision a "slush fund" and a "blank check for the administration." He tried unsuccessfully to redirect the $50 million from economic development to local road projects.

"If we are going to spend that $50 million, if we're going to borrow it from the people and then charge them to pay the debt service on it, we should decide what the money is used for. We should not abdicate our responsibility," he said.

There were complaints about the bill from both sides of the aisle. Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he was disappointed by the omission of any money for the Southwest Corridor light rail transit project, which would connect downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie.

"I understand that there is skepticism in certain parts of this chamber about additional rail transit. I get it," said Simon. "But I think in terms of the long-term viability of our region, it's something that we really have to open our minds to increasingly."

Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, said the bill represented too much additional borrowing and state debt.

"Let's put this off for another day. The projects in here can wait," said Buesgens. "But the debt we're foisting on the backs of Minnesotans is crushing, and it needs to stop."

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton proposed a significantly larger bonding bill. His list of projects totaled $775 million. But Dayton was sounding supportive of the smaller, final bill.

"It doesn't have everything I would wish for in it, and there are a lot of good projects that really benefit Minnesota that are not in it," said Dayton. "But something is better than nothing, especially when it comes to a bonding bill. So, we'll take what's possible."

Dayton was also busy drumming up support for the Vikings stadium bill. But some of his people were quietly talking with legislative leaders about a potential new tax bill.

Dayton angered many Republicans last week when he vetoed a package of tax breaks for businesses. But Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, chair of the House tax committee, said he's optimistic about a do-over.

"There are quite a few issues that the governor would like," he said. "So, hopefully we can put several tax bills that are sitting around this House chamber together and get it to the governor, and hopefully he can sign it."

With the end of the session expected within days, Davids stressed that lawmakers are facing an extremely tight time frame to reach a tax bill deal.