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Roofs, plumbing, electric: Why Gov. Mark Dayton’s $1.5 billion bonding proposal sounds like an episode of ‘This Old House’

Dayton’s bonding proposal focuses almost exclusively on maintaining the state’s assets — things like college classrooms and park trails — long after he’s gone.

Gov. Mark Dayton's bonding bill focuses almost exclusively on maintaining the state’s assets — things like college classrooms and park trails — long after he’s gone.
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach

He likes big bills.

During his two terms in office, Gov. Mark Dayton has routinely pitched packages of state-backed construction projects that spend north of $1 billion, arguing more projects will put tens of thousands of Minnesotans to work. So it was no surprise on Tuesday when Dayton’s office announced a $1.5 billion proposed bonding bill for the 2018 session, his final bonding proposal before he leaves office later this year.

“It’s a robust bonding bill,” said Dayton’s budget commissioner, Myron Frans, standing in for the governor, who was recovering from a cold. “He fervently believes $1.5 billion is the right number to go forward.”

But Dayton, a DFLer who championed major new construction projects like the Vikings stadium during his time as governor, veered away from any proposing high-profile, big-ticket projects this time around. Instead, his bonding bill focuses almost exclusively on maintaining the state’s assets — things like college classrooms and park trails — long after he’s gone.

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“Since 2011, we have made many important investments in Minnesota’s aging classrooms, buildings, and other critical infrastructure,” Dayton said in a statement. “But those investments have not kept pace with the enormous need for infrastructure improvements across Minnesota. Years of underinvestment have shortchanged our economy, our higher education institutions, and the vitality of our communities.” 

In all, Dayton is proposing to spend $542 million on higher education institutions, including $299 million across all five University of Minnesota campuses and $243 million for the Minnesota State system. Nearly all of that money would go toward things like classroom renovations, roof repairs, heating and cooling system replacement and electrical equipment upgrades. 

“The idea of a new, bright shiny object, if you will, is simply just not as attractive right now as a prudent investment,” said University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler.

Dayton is making the same pitch for other state-owned amenities, which he says are deteriorating and will only become more expensive to fix over time. He wants to spend $16.2 million to improve plumbing and ventilation at the state prison in St. Cloud, for example, and another $13.1 million to update veterans homes around the state and a cemetery in Little Falls. He’s proposing $3.2 million to repair deteriorating memorials surrounding the Capitol and other state buildings, and another $130 million to maintain the many state-owned trails, campsites, boat launches and piers.

Also on his bonding wishlist: About $100 million in affordable housing bonds, as well as $167 million to help small cities and towns improve and clean up their wastewater and drinking water facilities, a priority of his before he leaves office.

It’s a legacy bill for Dayton, and his proposal sets up one of the major debates of the 2018 session, which convenes on Feb. 20. Dayton and a Republican-controlled Legislature already passed a two-year budget in 2017, and the second year of the biennium is set up to be mostly devoted to discussing bonding proposals.

It’s part of an even-numbered-year tradition: The governor proposes a list of construction projects to legislators, who have the task of actually crafting and sending a bill to the governor to sign. But that’s proved challenging over the years, as Dayton and Democrats have clashed with Republicans over the types of projects to fund. The bonding bill has also been caught up in budgeting and transportation politics in recent years, with a package of projects failing to pass in the final minutes of the 2016 session over whether to fund light rail transit projects.

Already, Dayton’s bill is facing pushback from Republicans for the limited number of road and bridge projects, an element that’s often critical for obtaining GOP votes. House Capital Investment Chairman Dean Urdahl also criticized the overall size of Dayton’s bill, after lawmakers passed a nearly $1 billion bonding bill as part of the budget deal last year. The state’s budget forecast in November assumed enough money to finance an $800 million bonding bill in 2018. 

“It will be an uphill battle to secure legislative support for a proposal that spends $600 million more than we have planned for in the budget forecast,” Urdahl said. “Last session, the Legislature passed a $1 billion, geographically balanced bonding bill which focused heavily on infrastructure and transportation needs. Any bill that takes shape this year will need to follow that same blueprint.”

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Legislators are traveling the state now to vet proposed bonding projects in communities.

“While Gov. Dayton once again proposes a bonding bill that busts the budget, the Senate Capital Investment Committee is busy touring the state doing the hard work of setting priorities for a bill the taxpayers can actually afford,” Senate Republican Bonding Bill Chairman Dave Senjem said.

Dayton’s bonding bill excludes about $858 million in local projects his office said it received, but Frans said they are open to working with the Legislature to include some of those in a final, negotiated package. “What are the local projects that they want to invest in,” Frans said. “They are not in now, but our goal is to consider those as we go forward.”