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House plan stresses roads, not theaters
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
March 7, 2002
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House Republicans released a bonding proposal Thursday that they say is virtually 'pork free.' The bill focuses on higher education, roads and bridges.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum said a commuter rail line from St. Cloud to the Twin Cities was unpopular among many members of the caucus who are still smarting from a lost battle against the light-rail line being built in the Twin Cities.

The House proposal has a total price tag of $839 million; $737 million worth of construction projects would be paid for by money borrowed through bond sales. The bill is significantly less than the nearly $1.2 billion package passed by the Senate.

The chair of the House Capital Investment Committee - St. Cloud Republican Jim Knoblach - says the House focused on the state's core responsibilities such as higher education, transportation and corrections.

"We're in a time of budget deficits. This bill has to be paid for out of general fund monies in future biennia, and so that money inevitably comes from education or local government aid or tax increases, and so we feel that we need to keep the size of the bill under control," Knoblach said.

The bill recommends $196 million in projects for the MnSCU system and $131 million for the University of Minnesota. That's less than the Senate bill but more than Gov. Ventura recommended.

The House puts $148 million into road and bridge projects, more than either the Senate or the governor is proposing.

"Maybe we can get a little culture back in that House."

- Rep. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon

Gov. Ventura in January recommended $845 million in public works projects. But now the governor says he's scaling back his bonding recommendation to less than $500 million. He says the budget plan passed by the Legislature fails to balance the budget in future years, so there's no guarantee the state will have the money to pay off the debt on building projects.

"To put it simply, so people understand - it's like you're at your job, you know the salary you're going to earn. But now you're going to max your credit cards out in hopes that the boss gives you a raise next year. But the boss hasn't told you for sure you're going to get the raise, and the money's not in place," Ventura said.

Ventura says the budget bill also drains the state's budget reserves without a plan to replenish them. He says that could prompt bond rating agencies to downgrade the state's AAA credit rating, making it more expensive for the state and local governments to borrow money.

Ventura hasn't said what projects he'd cut from his bonding recommendation, and his office has no plans to release a revised proposal. The biggest item in Ventura's bonding recommendation is $120 million for the Northstar commuter rail line, which would run between St. Cloud and Minneapolis.

The Senate included just $8 million for the project, while the House bill has money for Northstar. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon says most House Republicans are reluctant to fund another big-ticket transit project so soon after light rail.

There's no money in the plan for a new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the GOP plan. Theater officials had requested $35 million for the new theater on the banks of the Mississippi River.

"Many of my caucus members, many persons, citizens throughout the state, see the $700-$800 million we're spending at the light rail, on the Hiawatha corridor, as being one of the biggest boondoggles, white elephants we enter into from the state standpoint of transportation. And on the heels of that, there are real concerns about the Northstar corridor," according to Sviggum.

Sviggum says supporters of the project will try to add money for Northstar to the bill either in committee or on the House floor. The House bill also does not fund arts or cultural projects such as a new Guthrie Theater or the Minneapolis Planetarium.

The chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee - Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon - says he'll try to get the House to agree to some arts projects in conference committee.

"Maybe we can get a little culture back in that House," Langseth said.

Langseth says his biggest criticism of the House bonding proposal is that it doesn't fully fund asset preservation at colleges and universities. That includes health and safety improvements at campuses around the state. Langseth says asset preservation isn't good politics, which is probably why it's not high on the list of House priorities.

"I've never come home and said, 'look at all the asset preservation I got for Moorhead State, or the tech school, or whatever.' It's not very visible, and they've low-balled that. Way too low, way too low," he said.

Langseth also says road projects don't belong in the bonding bill. Langseth says the Senate will fund highway improvements through a gas-tax increase. House Republicans argue that road projects are long-term capital investments, and deserve to be in the bonding bill. The House plans to vote on its bill next week, and then a conference committee will have to work out the many differences between the House and Senate plans.

More from MPR
  • Session 2002 Issue Briefing: Bonding
  • Commuter rail on the ropes? 3/7/2002
  • Guthrie theater design unveiled 2/7/2002
  • Commuter rail stalls at Capitol stop 2/12/2002