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At Issue: State’s ‘to-do’ list grows

Published (5/30/2008)
By Lee Ann Schutz
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Gov. Tim Pawlenty was upfront for months that one measure of a successful legislative session would be funding for a new Lake Vermilion State Park in northern Minnesota and capital improvements to the Minneapolis Veterans Home.

He got his wish in the waning hours of the 2008 legislative session on May 18, when legislators approved a $105.5 million bonding bill (HF4072*/SF3815/CH365) to fund these projects, and a “must have” for the chairwoman of the House Capital Investment Finance Division — the Central Corridor light rail project.

Although Pawlenty showed early support for the transit project, it was among the $208 million in proposals receiving a line-item veto from the first bonding law (HF380).

When Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) decided to sponsor a second bonding bill — brokered as part of the final budget negotiations — her intent was to ask funding for only the three projects, but she got more. “The governor actually surprised us a little bit by putting some extra things on the table,” she said.

Those extras include $2 million for replacement of Bloomington’s old Cedar Avenue Bridge with one to be used by bicyclists and recreational users. “The lead paint has been flaking off and falling into the river for years,” Hausman said. Rep. Ann Lenczewski (DFL-Bloomington) has been trying for at least 10 years to get the bridge project funded. “I think the governor was motivated to get that done.”

Hausman said the projects should be considered an extension of the original bonding law. When totaled up, this session’s projects, including some bonding in the omnibus transportation finance law, come in under the state’s debt management guidelines, whereby the General Fund appropriation for debt service should not exceed 3 percent of General Fund revenues.

Projects in the law include:

• $70 million for the Central Corridor light rail;

• $20 million to acquire land for Lake Vermilion State Park;

• $10 million for demolition and construction of 100-bed nursing facility on the campus of the Minneapolis Veterans Home;

• $3.4 million to the commissioner of administration for asset preservation; and

• $2 million to replace the old Cedar Avenue bridge in Bloomington.

The law, however, has its critics.

Two members representing the area where the new Lake Vermilion State Park would be located, are upset with the lack of process transparency and having a “park that most people in the area don’t want.” Rep. David Dill (DFL-Crane Lake) said many needs in the area are not being met, and pulling more land off the tax rolls will make it more difficult on the area, especially for the schools.

Schools were also on the mind of Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia), who chairs the House Higher Education and Work Force Development Policy and Finance Division, and saw several Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system projects vetoed from the first bonding bill. “Gov. Pawlenty, I’m so mad at what you did to my community, not only for your veto of improvements to Mesabi Community College, but the other three colleges that got a veto in the previous bill. … But a state park that most of the people in that area don’t want for the same amount of money is in the bill.”

The second year of the biennium is generally reserved for capital investment projects. Hausman, along with members of the division, visited projects across the state hoping to make it onto the final funding list. That was before the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed and the state’s approximate $2 billion surplus, projected at the end of the 2007 session, turned south into deficit territory.

These two issues ultimately shaped this year’s bonding laws. The bridge collapse showcased the need to address the state’s aging infrastructure, and troubling employment numbers sparked interest in construction projects that generally mean job creation. Hausman said that spending equity — focus on all areas of the state — was important. The metropolitan area, especially St. Paul, took a big hit from the veto pen in the first law. Hausman said the second bonding law brings project equity back in line.

Hausman drew on the state’s sesquicentennial anniversary, as she reflected on the state’s capital investment. “If we take care of the resources we have available, we’ll have another sound 150 years.”

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