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From veto fear to positive outlook

Published (2/25/2010)
By Mike Cook
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Chris DeLaForest, left, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s director of Legislative and Cabinet Affairs, and Sen. Keith Langseth, right, listen as Rep. Alice Hausman asks a question during a Feb. 24 meeting of a working group of the Capital Investment Conference Committee. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Round and round it goes and when it will stop, nobody knows.

However, it could be soon.

Less than 48 hours after the Legislature passed a nearly billion-dollar bonding bill, despite Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s announcement that he would veto the entire bill, the chairs of the respective capital investment committees had a more positive tone about what could happen.

“Definitely next week we want to get it on the governor’s desk,” Sen. Keith Langseth (DFL-Glyndon) said after a Feb. 24 closed-door meeting between conference committee members and the governor.

“We are still very serious about moving this bill quickly, our motivation has not changed,” added Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul).

Added Brian McClung, the governor’s spokesman, “Both sides agree we’re willing to do some work, we’re willing to continue the conversation. Both sides agree that it’s in the best interests of the state to pass a bonding bill, but it’s got to be affordable and it’s got to be prioritized.”

The optimism is far different from two days prior.

Passed Feb. 22 by the House and Senate, HF2700*/ SF2360 calls for $999.92 million in general obligation bonding, but lacks many projects the governor wants in a final product. Pawlenty repeatedly warned legislators he would not sign a bill totaling more than $725 million, calling it fiscally irresponsible when the state faces a $1.2 billion biennial budget shortfall.

“There was no confusion what our expectations were for this bill regarding size, regarding priorities or the like,” Pawlenty said at a press conference the next day.

The bill provides money for investments in higher education, flood mitigation, transportation and transit improvements, and clean water infrastructure and environmental protection.

Supporters say now is the time for a larger bill because of lower construction bids and low interest rates. Plus, they said it would create more than 20,000 new jobs, many to begin once the frost is out of the ground.

But the bill never made it to the governor’s desk.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Mpls) announced 90 minutes before the governor’s press conference that she would use a legislative rule to return the House file to the Senate.

“I think it will allow, for, maybe, a little cooling off period here in the next 24-48 hours,” Kelliher said.

Legislators and Pawlenty agreed to discuss their differences and see where compromise could be made, especially for public safety.

In his veto-warning letter, Pawlenty criticized what was missing from their bill, including $89.07 million for an expansion of the sex offender treatment program in Moose Lake, a security system upgrade at the Oak Park Heights prison, renovations at the Minneapolis Veterans Home and he wanted language to lift a cap that would clear the way for a land purchase for a proposed Lake Vermilion State Park. However, he noted the bill contains funding for “various sports facilities and civic centers, trail enhancements, and other local earmark projects.”

The bill contains no money for the Moose Lake facility, but instead calls for the corrections, human services and administration commissioners to “study the potential for using existing vacant or underused state facilities including regional treatment centers, for the sex offender treatment program.” A report would be due the Legislature by Jan. 15, 2011. The original House bill contained the funding; the Senate had a $1 million placeholder.

Dennis Benson, executive director of the sex offender program, told conferees that the facility is already overcrowded and that about 65 more patients are expected to be added in each of the next five or six years. “I don’t think we want to be careless, reckless or flippant about how we’re going to manage these people,” he said.

“Even the Republicans are voicing some concerns about the cost of the facility and also the program,” Langseth said. “I have always said I think that before the end of session there’ll be something on Moose Lake, but I think the number is going to be somewhat lower. We’re going to try to figure out what we need to do with that programming area. … It just baffles me that a kitchen and some rooms are going to be $61 million.”

Another Pawlenty criticism is that the bill was finalized behind closed doors, and released to the public in the wee hours of the morning.

Conferees met for the first time at 3 p.m. Feb. 21 to hear testimony about the sex offender facility request and some other housing issues, recessed at about 4:30 p.m. and returned more than eight hours later to accept the spreadsheet just before 1 a.m. Feb. 22. Language details were finalized later that morning, and both bodies approved the bill that evening.

“I think that all of this should happen in public from here on out; budget negotiations, everything else,” Kelliher said. “I’m willing to take the governor up on that.”

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