Minnesota’s latest political battle: Governor and legislators at odds over bonding bill’s scope

This may come as a stunner to you, Minnesota, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty today put forward a bonding plan that is substantially lower than the one the DFL-controlled Legislature has been dreaming about.

The governor proposed $685 million in general obligation bonds, lower even than the $725 million his own staff had floated in November, and a far cry from the $1 billion bonding figure DFL leaders have been talking about for weeks.

Pawlenty described his proposal as “financially responsible” and hinted that he might veto an entire DFL bonding package, rather than use his power of line-item veto, if lawmakers doesn’t come close to matching his number.

Pawlenty says he believes the Legislature purposely comes up with a bigger bonding package than the one he proposes so legislators can look like the good guys who are saying yes while the governor comes across as the heavy saying no.

Rep. Alice Hausman
Rep. Alice Hausman

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, chairwoman of the Capital Finance Committee, was in the room when the governor made those statements. She was appalled.

“What took my breath away was the cynicism about the work we [legislators] do,” Hausman said. “We do say ‘no’ to many great projects. We don’t come up with a proposal to make him look bad. How cynical can you be?”

Fast action may be wishful thinking
The bottom line in all of this talk of rushing through a bonding package to get money out of the Capitol and into the hands of people who own and drive bulldozers may have been mere wishful thinking. The Republican governor and the DFL legislative leadership are consistent in only one thing: They can’t get along.

The DFLers want to rush a big bonding package, saying it would help stimulate job growth in the state.

The governor, though, said today that the job-creation aspect of bonding is overrated.

“Government doesn’t create wealth, it transfers wealth,” said Pawlenty. Government programs, including bonding, he said, “transfers money from one segment of the economy to another.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

After the governor was finished with his presentation, Hausman offered her view of why the governor and the Legislature should quickly agree to a much larger bonding package than the one proposed by the governor.

“The only bright spots in this economy are low interest rates and that bids are lower than usual,” said Hausman. “Our tax dollars will go farther this year than they will two years from now.”

Pawlenty’s proposal moves away from what he described as all “local projects,” such things as hockey rinks and firehouses.

“The state has to get out of the business of funding local projects,” he said.

The big winner, as is usually the case, was higher education, which would receive 30 percent of the bonding money the governor proposes to spend. And within that pot, the biggest winner is the University of Minnesota, where the governor’s proposal calls for $80 million in bonding for a physics and nanotechnology building. That sort of a structure will help keep Minnesota competitive in the international economy, he said.

Interestingly, though, the governor did offer a long riff about how most higher education leaders don’t see “massive transformation coming.”

“We will see a transformation away from bricks and mortar,” the governor predicted, “and an unleashing of technology.”

He predicted that in two decades students will be dialing up their “econ 101 courses,” much as they dial up music today. That will mean future governors won’t have to worry about funding buildings for university campuses.

New Lake Vermillion park alive again
Though the governor repeatedly talked about how “responsible” his bonding plan is, there’s certainly an element of it that will caused some raised eyebrows.

Almost from the day he moved into the governor’s office, Pawlenty has envisioned a massive new state park on Lake Vermillion, on land currently owned by U.S. Steel. In 2006, the Legislature approved $14 million to purchase that land, but the deal has never closed.

Now, though, the purchase is at hand, the governor said, if the Legislature “simply changes some language” in its earlier approval of the deal. But there would also have to be a change in the number. Pawlenty wants the state to purchase the land for $18 million.

Oh, the governor does want this park. He sounded almost like a metro tree hugger as he talked of the wonders of having the park.

“The outdoors constitutes a large part of what we consider our quality of life,” said Pawlenty.

He spoke of how the “up north” experience is less affordable for people now than in previous generations because of the rising costs of real estate and because big, expensive resorts have replaced the inexpensive ma-and-pa resorts of another era. The creation of this park, he said, “would provide the up-north, at-the-lake experience to people for generations to come.”

But, he warned, the deal must be closed soon, or U.S. Steel will begin to turn the land into a housing development.

He denies that he sees this park as a legacy, saying he doesn’t “rate” his accomplishments.

But his longtime passion for this park may be the one bargaining chip DFLers have in the coming session.

Certainly, there will be little disagreement from most about what the governor wants supported by state bonds. Everything from flood mitigation along the Red River to constructing another building at the Moose Lake sex offender center is included.

But there is also much to fight over.

Minneapolis legislators and many friends of the library, for example, surely will be up in arms over canceling $22 million in bonding that was supposed to go toward erecting a planetarium at the Minneapolis central library. Approval for that project was given in 2005, but because of the failure to create matching funds, the project hasn’t moved from the drawing board.

“It’s not happening,” said Pawlenty of the project. “If they can’t show it’s going forward, it’s time to start over.”

There even will be disagreements over defining such words as “local.”

Pawlenty says the state should be out of the business of funding local projects, but Hausman counters that most bonding projects have “regional” impact.

“If you support the convention center in Rochester, that’s not just the city benefiting,” she said. “That’s the entire region.”

But the big argument will be over how much should go into the bonding package.

While the two sides argue, there’s no need for anyone to start a bulldozer.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 01/15/2010 - 03:49 pm.

    Pawlenty and the DFL Legislature disagreeing. That IS news!

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/15/2010 - 03:51 pm.

    Let’s see, the DFL wants to tax more, spend more, and create more debt for our children. Do I detect a trend?

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/15/2010 - 04:43 pm.

    At this point in our lives (and economy) it seems to me that it’s time to curtail construction of new facilities, generally, and focus on maintaining that which we have. Some new construction may be warranted, but not without also considering the future cost of maintaining those items. It’s difficult to assess how the governor’s budget conforms to that approach, given the liberal use of terms such as “renovate” and “preserve” in his office’s news release. Time will tell what the Legislature’s proposal is.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/15/2010 - 05:16 pm.

    I had no idea that Alice Hausman had such a wry sense of humor!

  5. Submitted by Dave Thul on 01/16/2010 - 07:08 am.

    ‘The DFLers want to rush a big bonding package, saying it would help stimulate job growth in the state. ‘

    The DFL may want to assess the failure of the Federal Stimuless bill when touting government spending to create jobs.

  6. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 01/17/2010 - 09:51 am.

    We’ve seen this all in the past.

    The governor usually gets what he wants, at least while there are enough Republicans in the legislature to make an override of his veto unlikely.

    So working on the assumption that the final figure will be in the area of $700 mil, the question is how to spend the money in the most intelligent way. I don’t think the governor has done this.

    The priorities for money being spent at the U of M are – as usual – out of whack. We will see how much President Bruininks is in favor of supporting our educational mission by whether he is willing to delay the nano building in favor of doing right by Folwell. (This is a classroom building refurb that is supposedly of highest priority.) It is hard for higher ed, under the circumstances, to claim that the governor has not done right by them, given their 30% cut of the funding.

    I suggest that using some of the budget for nano planning and some for finally doing the right thing for Folwell – something that our president has avoided for the past three years.

    Don’t hold your breath. Leadership and the ability to adapt to reality have been in short supply in Morrill Hall since 2002.

  7. Submitted by Dave Callaway on 01/18/2010 - 02:21 am.

    So, bonding is a transfer of wealth, according to the Gov.

    Question for the Gov., why do you want to transfer $4M more of our “wealth” to U.S. Steel?

    And now that the Vikings are HOT, we probably see Ziggy Wilf, (a very wealthy man), making a dash to the Gov’s office looking for a State “wealth” transfer, to enhance HIS “wealth”, in the form bonding for a new Vikings stadium. In other words, help me build it, but don’t expect any of “my wealth” in return for the favor! When he shows up, strive for a better bargain, for MN, OK?

    The Gov. likes to throw out “$100,000/job, with nothing to support the number.In addition to the labor at the job site, there is engineering/design, manufacturing, and delivery, all accomplished by people who have “jobs” and pay “taxes”!

    I am not advocating “bridges to nowhere”, but I don’t want to see any more fall, either!

    This state needs jobs NOW Gov. Jobs bring in taxes and stimulates the economy. People with a job will spend a lot more than someone squeaking by, looking for a job that doesn’t exist! This is not rocket science here, MN is headed into a ditch, time to steer MN back on the road to recovery! Lets get it done, now, it will look better on your resume than the alternative!

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/18/2010 - 05:01 pm.

    The stimulus package has not “failed.” President Obama announced at its creation that much of its effect will be felt during its second and possibly third years.

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