Anyone who thinks there isn’t comity — and comedy — among DFL and Republicans members of the Minnesota Legislature hasn’t shared a vehicle with state Sens. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, and Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley. On a near-daily basis for weeks at a time during the late fall and early winter, Langseth, Koering and other members of the Senate’s Capital Investment Committee have been touring the state, listening to sales pitches for literally hundreds of projects whose advocates seek a piece of the bonding bill when the 2008 legislative session gets underway Feb.12. All that cramped travel time and shared decision-making experience have honed the senators’ interactions into a fascinating stew of Capitol gossip, ribald bon mots, good-natured insults, and hilarious anecdotes about the highlights and lowlights of past trips. Nothing — especially including Koering’s homosexuality — is off limits.
That’s why, as I climb into the SUV’s third row of seats beside Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, and behind Koering and Langseth, Koering immediately sets the ground rules: Everything is on the record, “except what is said inside this vehicle. Otherwise you can’t come with us.” Given that my purpose is to gain insight into the competition for bonding dollars rather than become the CJ of state politics or glean material for my own HBO comedy show, I assent.
It’s Dec. 13, near the end of the next-to-last week of these daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on-the-ground scouting trips. The Senate committee members and some of their support staff have managed to accept the invitations of nearly every agency who wanted them to view a presentation of their project. Today there are nine of them, concentrated in and around the east metro.
There isn’t enough money for everybody. That fact — perpetually lamented by liberals and harped upon by conservatives when it comes to government spending — sets the tone for every meeting. Unless the February budget forecast is grim enough to depress the number in order to satisfy the bonding agencies and keep interest rates from rising, the Minnesota Legislature will issue $965 million worth of general obligation bonds (and commit a total of $1.09 billion in state monies) in the 2008 bonding bill. Yet the applications for bonding money — most of them worthy projects at the local level that would tangibly benefit residents from Aitkin to Zumbrota — add up to nearly $4 billion. Simple arithmetic indicates that the vast majority will be denied. That makes the applicants overly gracious hosts and the legislators necessarily cautious in their enthusiasm.
Even experiencing one day on this comprehensive “bonding tour” provides a compelling glimpse into how difficult these spending decisions can be. It also holds a mirror up to your own morality and philosophy of government, in terms of ordering priorities and leveraging investments.
For example, our first stop of the day was at the John Rose Oval, where the City of Roseville is asking for $695,000 worth of structural improvement to what is the world’s largest continuous sheet of outdoor ice made by man. We’re greeted by a group that includes Roseville’s mayor, the city manager and the director of parks and recreation, offering hot coffee and muffins on a cold morning. Sen. John Marty also stops in. Armed with a sheaf of relevant documents cogently contained in blue folders, we tour the facility and learn that the oval is the site of many statewide, national and international events, attesting to its regional significance — an important criteria for bonding. The monies would be used to install new security cameras, scoreboard, sound system, and rink dividers, plus upgrade the kitchen and banquet facilities. I came away impressed by the presentation and the relatively small amount of money being requested.
Just a few hours later, I realize the naívete of that reaction. By the end of the day, coming out of a Battle Creek Park building after a presentation by Ramsey County, asking for $1.5 million for snow making equipment and $450,000 to develop the Lower Afton Trail, I’m snorting at the temerity of the request. When Langseth replies that trail development is one of the most popular uses of bonding dollars among the public, I’m not sure whether he really supports that part of the project or is trying to promote a rigorous devil’s advocacy to ensure neutrality before any actual bonding decisions are made.
Between the ice sheet and the would-be snow makers, the day has been jammed with variously sobering and heart-warming evidence of the potential power of government investment. Out at the St. Paul Monastery in Maplewood, Sister Carol Rennie begins with a simple prayer after being encouraged by Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, who is himself a pastor. Then Rennie reveals that “we have been praying for 14 years about our future…instead of commercialism, we have decided to focus on our mission of women and children.” Thus, the decision to sell the monastery to the Harriet Tubman Family Alliance and use the proceeds to build another monastery elsewhere on the site.
According to the Tubman official, the decision does indeed seem heaven-sent. The monastery is located along the border between Washington and Ramsey Counties, making it ideal for their ability provide a battered women’s shelter for residents of both counties. And unlike their existing facilities it is along prominent bus lines, a crucial ingredient for a population frequently without other transportation. The rooms are already well-soundproofed and equipped with their own private sinks and bath. And there is ample meeting space in the building for the integration of legal services, counseling, family support, health care and schooling. Tubman is requesting $5 million in bonding.
Money for cleanup
Warmed by what an enormous boon such a facility could be for victims of domestic violence, we drive four miles and turn on to a dirt road off of Hwy. 5, parking in front of a beautiful, snow-covered field. As if on cue, four white-tailed deer go bounding across the landscape. Fifteen minutes later, we’re shivering around a series of documents put forth by officials from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA), and quickly apprised that this bucolic scene — otherwise known as the Lake Elmo Landfill — is actually a potentially dangerous repository of toxic waste. The site was a former landfill used by 3M and dozens of other businesses, and contains thousands of potentially hazardous chemicals, yet the PCA only has the ability to test for hundreds of them. Because of the potential contamination in the groundwater, possibly affecting as many as 55 homes in the area, this is at the top of the PCA’s list for cleanup. Unfortunately, it involves digging up millions of square yards of land and laying huge sheets of plastic. According to Sen. Kathy Salzman, DFL-Woodbury, 3M has agreed to contribute “as much as $8 million, which they didn’t have to do.” The PCA is asking for $27.8 million in bonding.
From there we go to Stillwater, where the city is asking for $625,000 to build a flood levee. And our luncheon hosts were administrators at Century College in White Bear Lake, part of the Minnesota State College and Universities (MnSCU) system. They are asking for $7.9 million to transform old chemistry labs and other anachronistic space into new classrooms and student meeting areas. Langseth, an ardent MnSCU supporter, points out that “the state owns these higher education facilities. There really isn’t anywhere else they can go for this kind of help.”
Earlier that morning, on the way to the Arden Hills City Hall, the Senate staffer driving us around warned that we would be greeted by protesters. And indeed there were a phalanx of picketers and attendant news media. The City of Arden Hills is asking for $29 million in highway improvements to three roads along a 585 acre site that is part of a massive former Army ammunition plant complex. The city is assembling a partnership with a host of federal, state and local government entities plus private developers to build an office, retail, housing and parks complex that they claim will create 7500 jobs, provide 1750 housing units, and amount to “$1 billion in development value.” But the protesters are residents of a mobile home park that would be displaced by the project, and accommodations have yet to be made regarding their fate.
It was one of the most effective protests I’ve ever witnessed. There were probably 50 or 60 people ranging in age from infants to very senior citizens, almost all of obviously modest means. Most of them were holding homemade signs. They were respectful of our group and of the media. Some were vociferous as we went by, but their anger was not nasty, more bewildered by this looming turn of events. Most effective of all, and impossible to fake, was the fear that showed on many of their faces. And while the Army Ammunition Plant Project officials were exceedingly polite and offered them refreshments and a chance to come in and hear their presentation, their natty attire and slick, power-point presentation stood in stark contrast to the picketers.
As we pulled into the Capitol with the sun dipping into the horizon, Koering turned toward me and said, “Tough choices. And it is like this every day we go out.” Although he said it inside the vehicle, I don’t think he’ll mind being quoted.
Britt Robson, formerly a staff writer and senior editor at City Pages, covers the state Capitol and politics. He can be reached at brobson [at] minnpost [dot] com.