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Senate hands Ventura a defeat with passage of bonding bill
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
February 18, 2002

The Minnesota Senate voted 51-13 for what would be the most expensive bonding bill in state history if signed into law. The bill has a nearly $1.2 billion price tag. It funds building projects at colleges, parks and theatres around the state. The bill is larger than Gov. Ventura's bonding recommendation and bigger than what House Republicans plan to propose.

Up until now, the largest package of public works projects was the $1 billion bill in 1998, which was criticized by then-gubernatorial candidate Jesse Ventura as an example of pork-barrel spending.

The Senate bill surpasses the 1998 package with nearly $1.2 billion worth of projects. About $1 billion worth would be funded by money borrowed through bond sales.

Gov. Ventura is recommending $845 million worth of projects. DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe says the Senate thought this was the year for an aggressive public works package.

"We thought this was the time to have a fairly sizable bonding bill, simply because interest rates are low, unemployment's going up, contractors need work and the state has significant public works and infrastructure needs," Moe said.

Moe says the bill shows the Senate's priorities. About half of the money goes to higher education. The Senate funds every building project requested by the University of Minnesota and MnSCU. It funds bridge repairs, projects at state parks and prisons, and the renovation of the governor's mansion. It includes $30 million for a new Guthrie Theatre and $20 million for the Minneapolis Planetarium.

But the Senate includes just $8 million for the largest item in Gov. Ventura's proposal. He recommends $120 million for the Northstar commuter rail line between St. Cloud and Minneapolis.

Senators overwhelmingly rejected an attempt to take the $8 million for Northstar out of the bill. Sen. Dave Kleis, R-St. Cloud, says commuter rail is needed to deal with the state's increasing traffic congestion.

"I'm disappointed, actually, that there's only $8 million in this bill. We certainly need more than that for that state commitment, but at least that's a start," he said.

There were no Republican attempts to scale back the size of the bill, although 13 Republicans voted against it. One of them was Assistant Minority Leader Kenric Scheevel of Preston, who says the bill is too large.

"We think it's important, to paraphrase the governor, to do what's necessary, not what's nice. And while the bill does a great job of funding the requests of higher education, I think it lost a little focus in an attempt to give certain members of the majority projects that would incent them to vote for the bill," Scheevel said.

Bonding bills must clear the House and Senate with a three-fifths majority. The House won't release its bonding proposal until early March, but Republican leaders say it won't be as big as the Senate bill.

House Capital Investment Committee Chairman Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, says his bill will likely be more in the range of the governor's proposal.

"I don't think it's wise policy to run the state's debt up to its absolute maximum in the middle of a recession, and certainly there are many good projects in the Senate bill, but there are some that I think we can do without," he said.

Knoblach says the House won't fund every higher education request, and will put more money into highway projects. The stickiest decision is whether to fund commuter rail. It runs through Knoblach's St. Cloud district, but many House Republicans are leery of funding another big-ticket transit project so soon after light rail.

More from MPR
  • Session 2002 Issue Briefing: Bonding