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Dayton’s ready to try again on familiar bonding projects, but GOP already is balking

His $775 million case: Not only would they create private-section construction jobs but also would help boost economic vitality in the urban core and in communities around the state.

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Gov. Mark Dayton

Three projects, now covered with dust, have returned to the Capitol.

Going back to late  in  Tim Pawlenty’s administration, Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato each have come seeking bonding money for improvements and expansions on their convention centers.

DFLers always have supported these projects. And despite the three cities’ history as fertile ground for Republican legislators, Republicans always have opposed the efforts.

It looks as if that story will be told again, as Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday unveiled specifics of his $775 million bonding bill.

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In introducing his proposal, Dayton said he debated with himself whether he even should put the bonding proposals in for the regional centers and for such urban projects as a baseball park for St. Paul and a makeover of Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis.

GOP quick to attack plan
He knows those proposals face staggering odds with Republicans, who not surprisingly were quick to fire away at the governor’s overall plan.

“Rather than using debt as a jobs plan,” said Dave Senjem, the new Senate majority leader, “Minnesota would be much better served if the governor turned his attention to creating a positive tax and regulatory climate in which job creators were more confident about expanding and investing in Minnesota.”

Understand that Senjem is among the “moderate” Republicans. He’s also a big booster of his hometown, Rochester. Yet, in the end, it’s unlikely he’ll push hard for the improvements that his hometown civic leaders say is so important to both the town and the region.

Senjem’s comments were pretty tame, compared with the statement from House Speaker Kurt Zellers.

“Fixing our deteriorating roads that people drive every day should be a priority over sending millions of dollars to staff up for nonexistent light rail lines, to pay for sculpture gardens and perennial greening, or other local pet projects,” Zellers said.

Pawlenty used the same reasoning when he vetoed such things as the convention center improvements in Minnesota’s midsize cities, claiming they were “local” and did not benefit the entire state.

So Dayton knew what was coming.

He answered some of Zellers’ snarky answer with a little predictable snark of his own.

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“They are critical of anything,” said Dayton of the Republican majority. “That seems to be the Republican response to anything: ‘No. No. No.’ ”

Still, he said, he fell back on the advice of his late grandfather and father in deciding such projects should again be pushed into a wall of resistance.

More snark here: “And they,” he said of those giants of the Dayton Department store chain, were “good job creators.”

Dayton touts importance of downtowns
It was the belief of past generations of Daytons that downtown cores are vital to the overall economic health of a region.

“I’m mystified as to why we don’t believe in helping downtowns,” Dayton said.  Without help, there will be a “doughnut effect” in our cities, meaning empty in the middle.

He’s trying to push old projects again. Not only, he insists, would they create much needed construction jobs, which directly help the private sector, but they also would help retain vitality of all the private-sector jobs in the respective communities.

Dayton was actually apologetic that this bonding bill falls short of the $1 billion bonding he’d promised on the campaign trail.  But that promise, he said, didn’t anticipate the sale of tobacco bonds that now limits the amount Minnesota can borrow in this session.

He chastised Republicans for the tobacco bond sale, noting that it was their refusal to accept his “tax the rich” proposals that led to using the bond sale and school shifts to balance the budget.

It is, of course, extremely difficult for either Republicans or DFLers to prove their respective points of view on the value of bonding.

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Dayton said that 21,700 new jobs could be created if his bonding bill were quickly passed. But even as he used that number, he said it was hard to prove.

Even if the bonding bill were to pass in its entirety and quickly – neither will happen – James Showalter, who heads the Minnesota Management and Budget office, said it’s likely that only about 15 percent of the total dollars could turn into active projects in the coming year.

Most projects, even those deemed “shovel ready” need to do final prep work before shovels actually are used.

Certainly, the late settlement of  last year’s special $500 million bonding bill, which didn’t come until the close of the mid-summer government shutdown, meant most of the projects missed an entire construction season.

But if  believers can’t prove just how many people would get work with a bonding bill, Republican legislators have an even more difficult time proving that lower taxes and lighter regulations would put people back to work.

 Typically, even Republican-leading chambers of commerce get giddy about bonding projects.

Where does this end?

With more long, tedious fights, of course.

But even the possibility of work is enough to raise the hopes of construction workers. Several trade unions sent members to Dayton’s news conference in support of his proposal.

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Tim Stender, a carpenter from Forest Lake who has been out of work since Thanksgiving, spoke on behalf of the building trades crowd.

He suggested that bonding skeptics drive to the University of Minnesota campus, where the $51.3 million nanotechnology and physics building is under construction. That project, once vetoed by Pawlenty, did receive bonding at the time of the shutdown settlement.

“I have [union] brothers and sisters are working there,” Stender said.

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