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Political Notebook: Senators hear pitches for local projects

Minnesota senators who will a critical role in deciding how to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding are headed to southeast Minnesota this week.

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Sauke

Minnesota senators who will play a critical role in deciding how to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding are headed to Southeast Minnesota this week.

Members of the Senate Capital Investment Committee will be traveling through the area today and Tuesday to check out local projects. It will be non-stop traveling for the senators as they will learn about more than two dozen projects.

Rochester GOP Sen. Dave Senjem is chairman of the committee. He said the tour is critical in helping members decide what projects to prioritize for funding.

"How do you make value judgments (about projects)? It's really pretty hard to do that at a hearing table at the Minnesota Capitol with PowerPoints. It's kind of doable, but it's much better to get out and see the projects and hear from the people," Senjem said.

Committee members will be listening to pitches for a wide array of projects. Proposals include money to expand U.S. Highway 14 between Dodge Center and Owatonna, renovations at Rochester Community and Technical College, construction of a new veterans home in Fillmore County and upgrades to Graham Park in Rochester — just to name a few.

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The committee will also be visiting Mayo Clinic Hospital — Saint Marys Campus to discuss the region's behavioral and mental health needs. Senjem is backing a proposal to spend $30 million to help establish regional behavior crisis centers across the state. He also wants to set aside another $50 million to build supportive housing for individuals with mental illness.

"We have no place aside from emergency rooms — as few and far between as they might be — for people to go to in a crisis moment to get care for their mentally ill person, and we've just got to face up to this," Senjem said.

Competition for the state dollars is expected to be fierce. Senjem said more than $3.5 billion has been requested. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton recently unveiled a $1.5 billion proposal. The Rochester senator said that is more than Republicans want to spend. He said he expects to put together a $700 million to $800 million proposal.

Topping his priority list will be funding for higher education institutions, transportation infrastructure and wastewater upgrades.

"Generally speaking, we look at projects that have a regional significance and that serve people well beyond the bounds of any one community," Senjem said. "We can't find ourselves in a position of building local parks or local fire stations or those kinds of things, which perhaps otherwise need to be taken care of by the local community."

Rep. Duane Sauke, DFL-Rochester, serves on the House Capital investment Committee. He said he expects there will be support for a "reasonably strong" public works bill. He said it is vitally needed — especially for state-owned properties.

"The state is billions behind in its maintenance and care of its owned assets," Sauke said.

Special elections worth watching

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Two special elections to fill vacant legislative seats are happening today. Neither of them are happening in Southeast Minnesota, but they are worth watching. One election is to fill an open Minnesota House seat after Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. Battling for that seat is Republican Jeremy Munson and Democrat Melissa Wagner. Munson took a leave of absence as chairman of the Minnesota First District Republicans. If he wins, he will resign his post and a new chairman will be elected in March.

The race expected to get the most attention is in the southern metro. The open Senate District 54 seat could become pivotal in determining control of the Minnesota Senate, where Republicans have a razor think majority. Washington County Commissioner and former DFL Rep. Karla Bigham and former GOP Rep. Denny McNamara are vying for the seat. A Libertarian candidate, Emily Melligen, is also running. The seat is open after former DFL Sen. Dan Schoen resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct.

The importance of the seat is heightened by the legal challenge over whether Republican Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach can also keep her state Senate seat. She ascended to lieutenant governor after Dayton picked then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to the U.S. Senate seat. Smith replaced DFL Sen. Al Franken, who resigned in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. If the courts rule that Fischbach can't keep her seat and Democrats win the special election, the Senate would start the legislative session tied 33 to 33.

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