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Dayton’s bonding bill pitch falls on GOP deaf ears

Gov. Mark Dayton is pushing a $1 billion bonding bill that he says will create jobs and rebuild Minnesota’s crumbling infrastructure. So how’s the plan working out with the Legislature? Not well at all.

It had seemed like such a novel — perhaps even noble — idea.

Gov. Mark Dayton had presented a bonding bill, seeking $1 billion in projects. But what was unusual was his decision to list “only” $500 million in projects. He invited the Legislature to come up with another $500 million in projects.

This $1 billion total, he said, would both create jobs and rebuild Minnesota’s crumbling infrastructure.

So how’s the plan working out?

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Not well at all.  

Republican legislators don’t appear to be coming up with any new projects and are expected to oppose many — if not most — of the projects Dayton wants.

“I think [the governor’s] plan doesn’t make any sense,’’ said Rep. Alice Hausman., DFL-St. Paul. “He should have laid out his entire vision.’’

By asking for $1 billion in specific projects, he might have ended up getting $500 million passed.  

Hausman, who last year headed the House bonding committee, has accepted the governor’s offer and created a bill calling for millions more in bonding.

Hausman plan has no traction
But her plan, she figures, is going nowhere. This is not a legislative body that’s going to say “yes’’ to much of anything.
Not surprisingly, Dayton’s spokesperson, Katharine Tinucci, offered a little rosier view.

“The additional $500 million was presented to the Legislature as an invitation,’’ she said in an email. “Based on testimony from groups like the University of Minnesota, the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce and several cities and counties from across the state, it is clear that this bonding bill has investments of statewide significance that will get Minnesotans — across the state — working again. We will continue to advocate for this bill and remain hopeful that it will be passed this session.’’

The House Capital Investment committee heard testimony this afternoon on the governor’s proposal. For the most part, committee members were respectful — or was that just disinterest? — as people from Moorhead to St. Paul to Rochester testified about why their projects were of crucial importance.

Lon Aune, an engineer from Marshall County, and David Overbo, an engineer from Clay County, noted that because of floods and  heavy use, county roads in those northwest Minnesota Counties are crumbling. Good roads are needed to haul sugar beets and gravel and other goods that benefit the state.

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Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin was on hand asking the Legislature to approve the $12.5 million the governor allotted for building a new light rail platform near the Twins ballpark. That, he said, would cure overcrowding at the current platform because so many people are using trains and light rail to attend baseball games.

“This is a high-quality problem to have,” McLaughlin said.

St. Cloud, Mankato and, Rochester all sent officials to testify for expansion of convention centers.

Those centers, they all said, will create jobs and provide economic growth to their respective regions.

On and on it went.

St. Paul wants $20 million for a new downtown Saints baseball ballpark, which is supported by all sorts of groups, including the local chamber of commerce.

(Interesting how so many local chambers of commerce come to the Capitol in support of bonding requests but the state Chamber of Commerce  says mostly “no’’ when there’s talk of public investment.)

Back to the testifiers.  

The University of Minnesota, under the Dayton plan, would receive $51 million for a new nanotechnology building. 

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Researchers from the private sector as well as Harvard and Mankato State currently use an 80-year-old facility that is “obsolete,’’ said Kathleen O’Brien, vice president of university services. This facility would put the University in a lofty place nationally, creating untold opportunities for the future.  

Putting people to work
At one point, there was a break in the stream of people asking for the committee to support their bonding requests. Steve Hunter, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, testified, pleading with legislators “to put our people to work’’ by supporting the governor’s bonding requests.

Larry Howes, R-Walker, now the chairman of the bonding committee, responded to Hunter gently.

“It’s debatable as to whether these [bonding bills] create jobs,” Howes said, “but it’s certain that [the constructions trades] are not in a recession — they’re in a depression.”

Hausman, it should be noted, thinks the world of Howes.

“Nothing but the greatest respect for him,” Hausman said. “But he’s in an impossible position. He’s surrounded by all these new [Republican] members.”

Howes was at all times courteous as the testifiers, one by one, stepped forward. But many of his Republican colleagues were texting or yawning or sitting with glazed eyes as earnest people with earnest projects made their cases.

There was no committee vote on the Dayton proposal today, and there likely will be at least a few more hearings.

But the governor’s great hope, that the Legislature would join him in a bonding bonanza, is showing few life signs.

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“You notice the skepticism [among Republicans] about whether bonding puts people to work,’’ Hausman said, noting Dayton’s opposite view. He can argue that this not only creates jobs but also “puts in place the structure for the economy of tomorrow,’’ she said.

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