House leaders clash over funding for Mayo proposal

Skyline of downtown Rochester, Minn.
The skyline of downtown Rochester, Minn., is seen Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The Mayo Clinic, Minnesota's largest private employer, pressed state lawmakers last month to commit more than $500 million toward an ambitious development project tied to the renowned medical center in Rochester. Mayo says the expansion will add between 35,000 to 40,000 jobs over the next two decades.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

The Mayo Clinic's ambition to become a "destination medical center" has lawmakers divided — and not just along party lines.

Read the post-show takeaway

Two DFL House leaders — Taxes Committee Chair Ann Lenczewski and Assistant Majority Leader Kim Norton — see things very differently. Lenczewski has voiced numerous concerns about the proposal, which calls for $500 million in taxpayer support. "It's allowing one developer to carve out the income and sales taxes in the city of Rochester for their benefit," Lenczewski was quoted as saying in the Pioneer Press. "That means a tax increase for everyone else to make up for that loss ... The state has never done this."

The novelty of the plan doesn't concern Norton, who is sponsoring the bill in the House. She told MPR News, "If other businesses can do it and it increases revenue in this state, and they need infrastructure in their communities, maybe it's a new good idea."

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In light of criticism from Lenczewski and other lawmakers, stakeholders are now looking for a funding Plan B. Lenczewski has asked Norton to work with Mayo officials and lawmakers to come up with alternative funding scenarios.

THE TAKEAWAY: Is that a criticism, or a selling point?

Toward the end of the conversation, a caller who identified himself as the spouse of a Mayo employee offered an observation about the quality of life in Rochester. The two legislators interpreted the same comment very differently: Lenczewski saw it as an indictment, and Norton took it as a justification.

Michael in Rochester: I would say that although Rochester has been a lovely experience and we have enjoyed it, I know a lot of spouses like myself here are kind of twiddling our thumbs. It does get very quiet here on weekends.

Kerri Miller: Are you originally from Arizona, Michael, or this area?

Michael: New York State, originally, actually.

Miller: So this is a whole new experience.

Michael: Yeah. I know that, talking to a lot of doctors here who are working on the globalization project of Mayo, a lot of what they're talking about is the fact that they are not only trying to provide jobs for the local people here, but also trying to make it attractive enough that someone from Spain or a specialist from Finland or Argentina would relocate their whole family. And I think that's an underlying component of the question about making the quality of life in Rochester more appealing.

Rep. Lenczewski: I think that's just really telling. And people should hear what was just said. I agree: Is it worth $585 million from the taxpayers to make it nice for folks who come here, and for doctors who work here and their spouses to have more options? That's a lot of what's going on here. If the price tag was $50 million, I don't think we'd be having this discussion. But if it's $585 million so people have more cultural amenities or more things to do in their down time, or to attract the doctor, that's something to think about.

Rep. Norton: That's exactly why we've come to the Capitol. If we haven't made our argument as well as that caller did, I apologize and we'll change our approach.

Miller: But why is it the taxpayer's burden to make things nice in Rochester so you can recruit doctors from Spain?

Norton: Because Mayo Clinic is an economic engine for the state of Minnesota, and they can choose to go elsewhere and bring those dollars to another state. Or we can help Rochester grow and make Rochester that place people want to come to.


• See MPR News' full coverage of Mayo's proposal and reaction from lawmakers.

Commentary from Rep. Ann Lenczewski in the Rochester Post-Bulletin laying out her concerns with the Mayo proposal.