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Dayton signs Minnesota public works spending bill despite 'concerns'

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DFL Gov. Mark Dayton listens to reporter's questions
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton listens to reporter's questions about the end of the legislative session during a press conference inside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Wednesday, May 30, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated 1:13 p.m. | Posted 10:30 a.m.

Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday put his signature to a public works package that will spend $1.5 billion on projects from road construction to college campus repairs. The state will borrow $825 million of that total.

The package was the single largest agreement between Dayton, a Democrat, and the GOP-controlled Legislature during a tumultuous session that saw Dayton torpedo tax and budget bills that included the main work of the Republican-led Legislature.

Dayton removed only one provision from the projects bill using his line-item veto power, $1 million for analyzing Minnesota Pollution Control Agency water regulations, which Dayton called "an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy."

Overall, though, the governor, made it clear he was not pleased by the bill he was signing and that Republicans should have agreed to spend more.

Mark Dayton and Myron Frans approach the podium.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget Myron Frans approach the podium for a press conference inside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Wednesday, May 30, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I am signing this bill despite my objections because areas throughout Minnesota need the projects and the jobs," Dayton wrote in his letter to legislative leaders. 

The legislation, he added, "underfunds critical investments in higher education, state parks and water infrastructure, and assures that those needs will become more urgent and more expensive in the future."

The public works construction bill passed during the final hours of the session. It includes $825 million in general obligation bonds and money from a slew of other funds totaling $1.5 billion in projects.

Among its provisions, it calls for spending:

• $129 million for the Minnesota State colleges and universities system to repair and maintain campus buildings and $80 million for the University of Minnesota system

• $98 million for the Department of Natural Resources

• $50 million for the Local Road Improvement Program

• $5 million for local bridges

• $400 million over three years for funding big road projects. 

There's also $25 million for school safety projects tucked into the bill, an important provision since the budget bill Dayton vetoed contained a provision to spend money from the state surplus to help boost school security. The governor told reporters Wednesday the fact that school safety funding was included in the bonding bill was part of his consideration in signing it.

There's also money for the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis as well as for a new visitor center at historic Fort Snelling

Other noteworthy items in the bonding package Dayton signed Wednesday:

• $28.1 million for mental health crisis centers

• $32 million for three veterans homes in rural Minnesota

• $10 million to upgrade security at buildings surrounding the Capitol complex

Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee Chair Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, said he was pleased that Dayton signed the public works spending package into law.

He called it a "very good package which features geographic balance, sticks to the priorities and focuses on infrastructure — all while respecting the taxpayers."

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, called the bill "a perfect combination of investments to rebuild safer roads, maintain statewide infrastructure, care for our veterans, and address mental health emergencies."

St. Paul Rep. Alice Hausman, the DFL leader for the public works bill in the House, noted that the bill didn't include money for transit but said it would still help many towns across the state. 

"While interest rates are low, it makes good economic sense to pass a robust bill," she said.

As part of the bonding bill, Dayton said he was upset Republican legislators included a "grab" of nearly $100 million from a lottery-fueled trust fund set up to go toward environment and natural resource projects. 

That fund, known as the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, has never been tapped for borrowing projects before, Dayton said.

"They insert a grab ... from the environmental trust fund with no hearing, no public discussion at the last minute, setting a terrible precedent, which followed over time will deplete that trust fund and turn it into just paying the interest on these kinds of projects," Dayton said.

Ultimately, Dayton said he couldn't line-item veto the funding because of the way it was written into the bill and because it ultimately went toward clean water and other projects he supported.