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COL It was worth the wait

Legislative session was productive for Rochester area

The 2005 Legislative session was a productive one for Rochester. It was a torturous route to the end, but a well-balanced compromise between parties created a reasoned 2006-2007 state budget.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty deserves much of the credit for the attention paid to Rochester, but so do area lawmakers of both parties. Local lobbyists did much to keep Rochester interests in the Legislature's view.

The list of projects in and around Rochester that gained legislative support is substantial, but none are giveaways of state money. In its own way, each of the projects contributes to the quality and the economy of the city, the region and, in no small part, the state.

Some of the highlights include:

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Although an $866 million bonding bill was a year late, it provided a $21.7 million state investment in the Mayo Clinic-University of Minnesota genomics research partnership. The money will pay for construction of a research center in downtown Rochester.

While the bricks and mortar needs of the genomics partnership gained full funding, the same cannot be said for the funding request to cover the actual research. The Legislature came through with slightly less than half of the requested $33 million, two-year research appropriation.

Lawmakers gave the genomics partnership a one-year, $15 million appropriation, but the amount leaves a huge question mark for the future. The partial funding guarantees some worthy research will go unfunded. The one-year appropriation means recruitment of researchers will be more difficult than with full funding, and those researchers with unfunded projects might be lured away by other states.

The one-year, partial funding of genomics begs an obvious question: Does the Minnesota Legislature understand or appreciate the competitive nature of genomics research? If researchers can't get the money they need here, they will be tempted to go to other states that are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into genomics research.

If genomics researchers leave Minnesota and make a breakthrough elsewhere, the spinoff businesses will likely locate where the research happened. In this scenario Minnesota would lose because lawmakers were penny wise, but pound foolish. On genomics research, Minnesota lawmakers have not done enough.

In part, the Legislature has dropped the genomics ball because local lawmakers of both parties are not doing enough to educate caucus leaders of the importance of genomics research.

Also in the 2005 bonding package was $11 million for renovation of the University Center Rochester's Rockenbach Gymnasium into health-science classrooms. UCR can't train health-science students fast enough to satisfy the demand.

The Rockenbach renovation is important, but it is simply a catch-up move. The real vision for Rochester came from Pawlenty in his 2005 State of the State speech, delivered in Rochester, in his call for a new, four-year university in Rochester.

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Pawlenty rose above the political infighting between competing interests in Minnesota higher education and said Rochester needed a more comprehensive university.

The governor called on the Legislature to approve $3.2 million for immediate needs and future planning of a new university.

To Pawlenty's credit, he maintained support for the idea even when leaders at the University of Minnesota and from Minnesota State Colleges and Universities said they needed the money more than Rochester.

With steadfast support from the Rochester community and from area lawmakers, the Legislature gave Pawlenty and Rochester the money to plan a new university.

There were smaller items of support, such as the approval of an expansion of Rochester's local option sales tax. Final authority will rest with voters in a referendum. Money for bike trail development will further enhance the area quality of life.

All in all, even though lawmakers pushed the session past the brink and caused a painful, partial shutdown of state government, the result was beneficial for Rochester.

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