GOP legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton have fundamentally disagreed on a borrowing bill since he introduced a $1 billion proposal in late January.
Now, House Bonding Committee Chairman Larry Howes has widened the philosophical divide by proposing to eliminate about $60 million in bonding funds for old state-funded projects dating to 1994. The bill, approved by his committee on Tuesday, would save the state roughly $90 million in interest costs and de-funded projects over the next four years.
The major cancellations would include $25.2 million for rail planning and $22 million allotted to build a planetarium in Minneapolis. A proposed University of Minnesota laboratory, money for parks and trails, and the state share of a regional safety training center — totaling about $9.6 million — also may also get the ax.
“Some of these decisions that were made were very difficult,” he told DFL lawmakers who defended the projects.
Howes sees likely bonding limited to flood relief
Howes confirmed that any bonding bill passed this session will likely only include funding for flood relief efforts and exclude the civic centers, higher education facilities and transit improvements funded by Dayton’s proposal
Hours after Dayton presented his bill in January, GOP legislative leaders denounced it as an example of government living beyond its means. They called on lawmakers to examine the roughly $1.2 billion in outstanding bonded projects instead of finding ways to spend more money.
That’s what Howes has begun to do.
Tuesday’s action was the first part of the planned bond cancellations, Howes said, noting that the current selections were his idea. Another series of de-funded projects outlined by Republican leaders is coming next week, although Howes couldn’t say how much would be cut and what any final targets might be.
It’s also unclear which specific projects may be shut down, but Minnesota Management and Budget has a 36-page spreadsheet of proposals that haven’t been started.
Rep. Alice Hausman, a former chairwoman of the bonding committee, said she was surprised more cuts to transit weren’t included in the bill. She added that “higher education should be careful” as well.
Howes said after the meeting that the projects he’s proposed to cancel weren’t “shovel ready,” a term used by government officials to indicate that they’ll begin creating jobs right away. Lawmakers “have to get out of the habit” of approving projects that can’t be implemented quickly, he said.
Advocates say it’s a mistake to de-fund projects
But representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Minnesota Planetarium Society vigorously resisted the proposed cuts to their projects and stressed that they’ll soon be ready to go.
The $26 million allocation for rail planning, included in the 2009 bonding bill, was the most contested item on the agenda. Bernie Arseneau, a MnDOT deputy commissioner, said Minnesota needs to invest in route planning to capture part of $2.4 billion in federal transit funding that recently became available.
The Transportation Department, which helped complete a statewide freight and passenger rail plan last year, is set to use about half the $26 million to plan routes from the Twin Cities to Rochester, Duluth and Chicago “in the next few months,” Arseneau said.
“In the past, because we were not fully prepared, opportunities were missed,” he said.
If the planning money is canceled, Minnesota could lose out on federal funding that’s already in the works, aside from the $2.4 billion prize on the horizon, he said.
Hausman called an alternative transit network necessary as the “silver tsunami” of baby boomers retires. She noted that local Chambers of Commerce support the funding and that rising gas prices mean mass transit will only become more relevant.
Likewise, Angus Vaughn, president of the Minnesota Planetarium Society, said his project is making progress and needs the $22 million bonding allocation to move forward. Although plans fell through to put the planetarium in the Minneapolis Public Library, Vaughn’s group is currently working with University of Minnesota officials to install it in the Bell Museum of Natural History.
Despite two failed amendments to remove some of the projects from the bill, it passed along a party line vote. Republicans took a strong stand against spending taxpayers’ money to create jobs and derided taking federal government aid.
“The people cannot afford the overextension of promises that were made in the past,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.
But Hausman had strong words for the GOP legislator after the hearing: “Drazkowski calls [bonding] bleeding us dry,” she said. “He’s the first one in line to rebuild his towns after the floods. He’s the first in line.”
Situation fluid, Howes says
Before the legislation is heard in the House Ways and Means Committee, Howes said he would discuss aspects of the bill with other lawmakers. Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus falls, for example, raised concerns in the meeting about cutting funding for a trail in his district but still voted for the proposal.
“I’m not going to make any promises, but things could change. Keep that in mind,” Howes said.
These proposals are “all about” preparing to negotiate with Dayton on bonding as the session ends, Howes said.
The governor is “probably not going to like a lot of what we’ve put together,” he said, admitting that Republicans feel the same way about Dayton’s proposition.
Katharine Tinucci, a Dayton spokeswoman, said the governor is willing to work with the GOP on a bonding bill, but said he hadn’t yet reviewed Howes’ current proposal.
James Nord, a University of Minnesota student, is a MinnPost intern.