The Minnesota House has passed a bonding bill on its second attempt. The bill was defeated last week after funding for the Northstar commuter rail line was added to the bill. But after the money was stripped from the bill, the package of construction projects had enough votes to pass.
The $839 million capital investment bill includes construction projects at colleges, universities and state agencies, and repairs to roads and bridges.
But when $9 million for a commuter rail line between St. Cloud and Minneapolis was added to the bill last week, it didn't garner the needed two-thirds majority to pass. The Northstar project has deeply divided House Republicans.
Opponents don't want to fund another big-ticket mass transit project like the Twin Cities light-rail line. They took the $9 million and put it towards roads and bridges, over the objections of Northstar supporters like Republican Jim Abeler of Anoka.
"This is not a boondoggle, members, this is a good investment in trying to keep our state running. One of the primary roles of the state government is to provide infrastructure and transportation to its members and its citizens to do the business they've got to do," he said.
Abeler and other Northstar supporters say the state can't simply build roads to address traffic congestion problems. They say Minnesota will lose out on federal money if it doesn't approve the project this year.
But legislators who voted to take out the Northstar money say the bill won't pass with the project in it. Republican Dennis Ozment of Rosemount called Northstar supporters "obstructionists."
"We have millions of dollars in here they have to go towards veterans homes and hundreds of millions that we're trying to put into the environment to protect us from pollution. You're taking the rest of the bill down," Ozment said.
House Republican leaders say they convinced members the entire bill was in jeopardy if they didn't vote to remove the commuter rail money. After the funding was stripped from the bill, it passed by a vote of 95-37. The bill's author, St. Cloud Republican Jim Knoblach, is a Northstar supporter. But he switched his vote to take out the rail money.
"This was the toughest vote I've ever had at the Legislature because my area has been supportive of commuter rail and I have too. But the fact of the matter is, we've got to get a bill passed, there are a lot of other good things in this bill, both for the St. Cloud area and for the rest of the state," he said.
Knoblach says he expects his vote will be used against him in this fall's election. He says there's a chance money for Northstar could come out of conference committee. The Senate included $8 million for the project in its bonding bill, and Gov. Ventura recommended $120 million for commuter rail.
The legislator who added the Northstar money to the House bill, Republican Kathy Tinglestad of Andover, says she'll keep pushing for the project.
"You know, we're not giving up. I mean, there's other opportunities; we're looking at the possible transportation package coming up this next week, some MVET stuff, so there's definitely some possibilities," she said.
But House Republican leaders say any bill with commuter rail will have trouble in the House. The bonding bill conference committee will be challenging for reasons in addition to commuter rail.
The House bill is smaller than the nearly $1.2 billion package passed by the Senate. It also includes fewer local projects and no funding for arts projects like the Guthrie Theater and Children's Theatre Company.More from MPR