Senjem accuses Dayton of undermining civic center funding
Sen. Dave Senjem says Mayo Civic Center lost out on a state grant in 2012 because DFL Gov. Mark Dayton demanded it be ranked lower on a list of projects, an allegation the governor's office calls "dishonest" and "shameful."
The Rochester Republican's allegations center around the process of awarding $47.5 million of construction projects through the Department of Employment and Economic Development last fall. At the time, Senjem held the post of Senate majority leader. He said Mayo Civic Center originally was ranked No. 1 on the list for funding, but the governor ordered the rankings be changed. When then-DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips refused to change the rankings, Senjem said the governor told him to resign or be fired. Phillips ended up resigning a month later.
Senjem says the push to reorder the projects all had to do with a promise made by the governor months earlier. He was in a meeting when the governor promised funding for a new St. Paul Saints ballpark in exchange for five votes for the proposed Vikings stadium.
"It could have gone forward but for the commitment to the Saints stadium," Senjem said.
In the end, Rochester's request for $25 million to expand the Mayo Civic Center ranked 11th on the list and did not receive funding. The St. Paul Saints stadium project ended up getting $25 million.
Bob Hume, the governor's deputy chief of staff, said in an emailed statement that Senjem's allegations are "completely untrue."
He added, "Gov. Dayton had no involvement in the review or rating of projects by DEED's professional staff last year, nor did he in any way alter their rankings."
Hume notes the governor included funding for the civic center plan in his bonding bill proposals in 2011 and 2012 and "unfortunately, Sen. Senjem did not fund his own city's project, even though he chaired the Senate's Bonding Committee both years and, in 2012, was the majority leader."
Hume concludes that "for him to shift the blame for his own failures onto Gov. Dayton is dishonest and shameful."
Senjem said he expected the governor's office to deny the allegations. He declined to say where he received his information but said it was "on very good authority."
He added, "You are never going to get anybody from the governor's office to admit that."
Civic center support
Senjem made the allegations amid frustration that Dayton repeatedly has been portrayed as a big supporter of the civic center project. In 2012, Senjem said he fought hard to get funding for the civic center included in a large public works bill. It was included in the Senate version but ended up getting stripped out of the final bonding bill in negotiations with the House. At the time, Republicans controlled both chambers.
Rochester has been seeking state help for several years to add a 188,000-square-foot addition to the civic center to expand its convention space. The project's goal is to attract large medical and high-tech conferences to the center.
Senjem said he specifically came up with the DEED grant award for public infrastructure projects with the goal of getting funding for the Mayo Civic Center project. The award criteria was specifically written to help ensure the project would score well. That criteria included the number of jobs created, increase in the local tax base and the capacity of the project to attract revenue from out of state.
In an interview, Phillips, the former DEED commissioner, says the governor did not alter the rankings, and they were done by the department's nonpartisan staff. He said the only change the governor made was to award funding to the Southwest Light Rail project even though it didn't score well enough to get the dollars. That was to make sure the project kept moving so it wouldn't lose out on the chance for federal dollars.
"The governor didn't weigh in much on those recommendations at all," he said.
What really hurt the civic center project was that the department decided to rank projects on two key factors — the amount of private-sector investment and the amount of private-sector jobs created, Phillips said. The Mayo Civic Center's matching fund dollars would have come entirely from public dollars.
Phillips added that another key Republican on the Senate Capital Investment Committee told him the DEED grant fund was created to fund the St. Paul Saints Stadium. Lastly, he noted there were two other civic centers — one in St. Cloud and one in Mankato — jockeying for those dollars as well. There's no guarantee that even if the criteria emphasized had been more friendly to the Mayo Civic Center project that one of the other civic centers wouldn't have ended up getting the money.
Ultimately, he said, it is clear that bonding bills are the best way to get civic center projects done. He said the governor wants to see the civic center get done.
"This is not a question of someone being for it or against it. It's just a question of is the Legislature ever going to find a decent-sized bonding bill so you can do all these projects," he said.
Departure at DEED
Phillips did indicate his decision to leave DEED wasn't entirely his idea. He said he is not sure why the governor's office wanted him to leave but said, in the end, it was "a mutual decision." He since has returned to his previous employer Kraus-Anderson Construction Company as director of business development. In that role, he said he is pushing to see all the civic center projects get included in next year's bonding bill.
Hume did not comment on Phillips' departure.
Senjem said, in many ways, "no gift could have been greater" than the governor's willingness to get behind Mayo's Destination Medical Center expansion. In the end, what happened with the civic center grant money "is just politics in the big city. That's the way it goes."
The Office of Minnesota Management and Budget received a request this summer for the 2013 bonding bill from the city of Rochester, asking for $37 million to expand Mayo Civic Center. This marks the seventh attempt by the city to get funding for the project and likely will be its last, said Brad Jones, executive director of the Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau.