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Key distinction: Are projects good for the state — or goodies for legislators?

We shouldn’t be surprised that charges of partisan politics are taking center stage in the wake of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of over $200 million in projects from the capital investment (“bonding”) bill passed by the Legislature. Over 60 percent of the cuts fall on St. Paul, the home district of DFLer Hausman, the chief sponsor of the bonding bill. The most notable cut is $70 million for the Central Corridor light rail line — an obvious sore point for the governor after the override of his earlier veto of $6.6 billion in transportation tax increases, including a metrowide sales tax to support public transit.
What we have here is a teachable moment.
We shouldn’t be surprised that politics goes on at the Capitol; we shouldn’t be shocked, but that doesn’t prevent us from being disappointed. The governor is in a prime position to show some leadership and elevate the debate above partisanship to put the focus on the proper question: “What are the legitimate and essential capital investment obligations of the state?”

Either the Central Corridor is good for Minnesota or it’s not. If it’s a legitimate state expenditure and a good investment for Minnesota, the governor has no business holding it out as a bargaining chip with the Legislature in the battle over other budget issues. If local transportation is not a legitimate state expenditure or the Central Corridor is a bad investment for Minnesota, then the governor has no business sacrificing taxpayer dollars to the project because he can’t get the Legislature to act responsibly in other areas without bribing them. That may be compromise, but it is bad compromise.
Taxpayer-footed Kumbaya
As for Rep. Hausman, she shed all pretenses that the bonding bill is about what is good for Minnesota and revealed it as a ginormous cluster-Kumbaya at taxpayer expense. Of a possible override, Hausman told the Pioneer Press, “There’s no way we can override when everybody else (outside of St. Paul) has gotten their stuff.”
If bonding were about the good of the state and not goodies for legislators, then wouldn’t legislators across the state rally on principle to the defense of light rail, gorilla exhibits and Asian cultural centers? If the bonding bill were about jobs and the state economy, wouldn’t legislators for the sake of a better Minnesota and the welfare of their constituents defend their judgments that Bell Museum expansion, Union Depot renovation and a National Great River Park are essential state spending? Were the votes in favor of the bonding bill from Greater Minnesota legislators simply about “getting their stuff”?
Deciding what projects the state should fund should be based on objective criteria: Is the project a constitutional responsibility of state government? Is the project a good investment judged by objective criteria? If not, then the state shouldn’t fund it, period, regardless of the economy.

While the governor, bless his heart, significantly trimmed nonessential projects from the bonding bill below his original $825 million target to $717 million, he left untouched $20 million for an event center in Bemidji, $10 million for an ice arena in Crookston, $38 million for a hockey arena in Duluth, $3.5 million on a civic center for Rochester and $2 million for the St. Cloud convention Center. He vetoed $3 million for the National Volley Ball Center in Rochester, but kept in $6.5 million for the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.

What rationale makes the Volley ball Center a loser and the Hockey Center a winner, other than that the governor is a former puckster who looks better in hockey breezers than volleyball shorts?

For the sake of my wallet and the state economy, I hope the governor sticks to every cut he made. For the sake of the future, I hope the governor elevates the debate and sets a new standard for what is and is not an “essential” project eligible for state funding. That would be leadership.

Craig Westover is a contributing columnist to the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion page and a senior policy fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Craig Westover on 04/10/2008 - 07:07 am.

    Tony –

    “Gotten their stuff” is a very relevant remark in context. As Hausman noted in a piece in the Pioneer Press, sometimes projects are “essential” because they help pass the bonding bill. It’s not “improper” in any legal sense, but its common practice to insert spending into the bill that is not necessary from any objective criteria other than it secures a vote for the total bill. That virtually guarantees that the bonding bill will spend to the maximum limit. It’s not improper, it’s accepted. It’s a game played with taxpayer dollars. If the governor goes back on his cut of the Central Corridor, then he’s playing it, too.

    Mark –

    You forgot to work Michele Bachmann into your comment. If you put your mind to it, I’m sure you can find some way to blame her for the bonding bill. And isn’t Bush somehow involved? My, God, we’re still in Iraq! Hope that some smart people on the left will advance an argument, and you’ll always be disappointed.

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 04/09/2008 - 10:34 am.

    Bonding bills are one of the few opportunities that Rep. Average Legislator gets to have their name attached to brick and mortar. If it is successful, they get the bouquets. if it is unsuccessful, they get the brickbats.

    Transportation was overridden but the legislative majority wants to eliminate or severely curtail JOBZ, something the Governor does not want to see happen. Each now believes they have something of value that the other wants.

    So, we enter the bonus rounds of “Deal or No Deal” at the corner of Rice St. and University Avenue between now and the end of the session.

  3. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 04/09/2008 - 03:36 pm.

    And the fact that 99% of the money cut by Pawlenty was in DFL Senate Districts is just a big coinkydink, right Craig?

    This is the kind of backroom garbage I’d expect from Alabama or Mississippi, not Minnesota. Kinda makes you wonder who Rachel Paulose would be prosecuting right now had she not tripped over her tongue too many times.

    Expect the worst from the Republicans and you’ll never be disappointed.

  4. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/09/2008 - 04:27 pm.

    I agree that the bonding bill needed trimming, but I think we’re being overly sensitive if we interpret Rep. Hausman’s “gotten their stuff” remark as evidence of improper legislative practices.

    I wish the governor would have shown a little more impartiality and, say, sacrificed one of his hockey arenas too, but I can’t blame him for axing the Central Corridor money, given the new sales tax increase dedicated to transit funding. I believe the DFL was right when they rebuked the governor’s over-reliance on bonding/borrowing for transportation projects. Now, it seems the roles are reversed! And with the user taxes and sales taxes already on the books, I think I agree with the governor here: there’s no sense bonding additional money for non-emergency transportation projects.

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