Big building plan reaches Pawlenty despite veto threat
ST. PAUL — Democrats who run the Legislature dared Gov. Tim Pawlenty to block a bevy of public-works projects by sending him a bill today that far exceeds the amount he is willing to add to state debt rolls.
The bill authorizes $925 million in general obligation bonds, but its total value rises above $1 billion because additional financing would be drawn from other pots of money. Pawlenty wanted the bill held to $825 million, saying anything more would bust a traditional debt limit and endanger the state’s credit rating.
"It’s a game of chicken with the governor," said Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina.
The package before Pawlenty provides for new or repaired buildings on college campuses, civic center renovations, hiking trail upgrades, transit line expansions, landfill remediation, historic site preservation and state Capitol repairs.
House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said the slate of projects "lifts up every corner of our state."
The biggest single project is $70 million for a Minneapolis-to-St. Paul light rail line, but higher education is the prime focus with $280 million worth of construction. The University of Minnesota would also get approval for four biomedical research buildings the state would help pay for over several years.
The bonding bill is a major focus of election-year sessions, and lawmakers from both parties try hard to steer money to their districts for bricks-and-morter projects. The bill requires three-fifths majorities to pass so most members get something out of it.
The final House vote was 90-42. The Senate followed with a 57-10 vote.
But the bill won’t survive intact.
"Governor Pawlenty won’t allow the legislature to break a 30-year record of abiding by a responsible debt service limit because government needs to live within its means," Pawlenty’s spokesman Brian McClung said.
Pawlenty has the option of cutting out individual projects or striking down the full bill. After formally receiving the bill, Pawlenty has three days to act.
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, compared the governor’s options to blender functions: "The governor has the choice of chop or liquefy."
An override vote would face long odds in the House, which would have to act first.
Democrats said the Republican governor has failed to identify specific projects he would cut to bring down the bill’s cost. They said they already whittled their bill down from the $4 billion in requests.
"It’s kind of hard to negotiate with a ghost," Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia complained. "The governor thinks there are three branches of government and they’re me, myself and I."
Some frequently mentioned projects include: $38 million for upgrades to the Duluth convention center; $30 million for flood control around the state; $11 million for revamped polar bear and gorilla exhibits at Como Zoo; and $5 million for an anti-terrorism training center at Camp Ripley.
Omitted from the bill is money for development of a new state park on the shore of Lake Vermilion and approval for a veterans home in Minneapolis, both of which Pawlenty deemed critical.
Supporters say the bill will give a jolt to a stagnant construction sector. They said they designed the bill to advance projects that can move quickly from the drawing board to the construction phase.
Rep. Pat Garofolo, R-Farmington, disputed that a bigger bonding bill would guarantee an economic boost. He referred to bills passed in 2005 and 2006 that authorized nearly $2 billion in borrowing combined.
"If borrowing more money was the way to create jobs, we’d be swimming in jobs right now," Garofolo said.
He and other critics accused Democrats of violating a long-held practice of keeping state debt below three percent of its general treasury spending. Under those guidelines, the Pawlenty administration said the bill shouldn’t exceed $825 million because $60 million in bonds were authorized in the recently enacted transportation finance law.
But the bill’s architects say they’ve included language that would structure the bond sale in a way that stays under the cap.
On the Net:
A full list of projects can be found at http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/fiscal/files/bond08.pdf