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How the Guthrie Theater made it into a lean year's bonding bill
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An artist's depiction of the new Guthrie Theater. (MPR file photo)
Gov. Pawlenty has signed a $237 million bonding bill into law. The bill authorizes the state to borrow for construction projects, including buildings at state colleges and universities and flood relief in northwestern Minnesota. The largest single item in the bill is $25 million for a new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Guthrie officials say the theater's inclusion in the bonding bill ends a lengthy lobbying effort.

St. Paul, Minn. — The private non-profit Guthrie Theater first asked the Legislature for state money for a new theater three-and-a-half years ago. Lawmakers approved $3 million in planning money, and Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed it. The Legislature overrode his veto. Two years later, lawmakers approved $24 million for a new Guthrie Theater, and Ventura line-item vetoed the project after the Legislature adjourned.

Now Gov. Pawlenty has signed a bonding bill that includes a $25 million grant for the Guthrie. Artistic Director Joe Dowling says over the years, the Guthrie gained bipartisan support.

"Ultimately, the support that came at legislative level, I think, was because people, again, in both the House and the Senate bought into the idea that a theater like the Guthrie, creating its own facility that would become a national center for theater art and theater education was something that could benefit the state of Minnesota," he said.

Dowling says the Guthrie plans to break ground for the new theater on the banks of the Mississippi River in September. Dowling says several key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pushed for the Guthrie this year, and Gov. Pawlenty's support was crucial.

"What was very clear to us, both as a candidate and as governor, was that Gov. Pawlenty wanted this to happen. And he saw this as a very valuable project. He made this clear to us, as I say, as a candidate and then he followed through."

Gov. Pawlenty downplays his role in the Guthrie's inclusion. He says it wasn't his top priority, and he didn't even propose a bonding bill. But Pawlenty says he did say he was open to the Guthrie if lawmakers decided to pass a bonding bill.

"The Guthrie is an established success," the governor said. "It's not taking a big risk, and they raised three-fourths of the money themselves. And I don't think that's an unreasonable thing for the state to partner with when they already have a national success and have demonstrated that they're a quality of life institution for Minnesota."

Some Republican lawmakers criticized funding the Guthrie project at a time when the Legislature was trying to erase a projected $4.2 billion deficit. And some DFL lawmakers questioned why the bonding bill funded the Guthrie, while excluding money for economic development zones in Minneapolis and the Minneapolis planetarium.

"Well, I think the final bill was like choosing between children," said Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, an assistant House minority leader. She's been a strong supporter of the Guthrie, calling it a "jewel and a treasure" for the state. She says while members of the Minneapolis delegation support the Guthrie, their top bonding priorities were the so-called empowerment zones to help urban neighborhoods and the planetarium.

"I think the main thing here was the size of the bill. It just shrunk down, and as it shrunk down, certain projects, it was difficult to keep everything in that bill."

During the House debate on the bill, Minneapolis DFLer Keith Ellison tried unsuccessfully to take $2 million of the Guthrie funding and put it into the Minneapolis empowerment zones. Anderson Kelliher says Minneapolis Democrats will push for the other Minneapolis projects in next year's bonding bill.

The chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, DFLer Keith Langseth of Glyndon, says House Republican leaders would only agree to so much money for Minneapolis projects. Langseth says he never doubted that the Guthrie would be funded. He says the Senate has always supported the project, and Republican leaders told the Guthrie they supported it.

"We knew all along that they had made these commitments, so we didn't spend much time arguing about it and didn't have to. I mean, in fact, they didn't argue about it all. Just come to that on the list, and they agreed to it, and we knew they would do that. It's just when it come to the public spin, then they had to do their little thing, like saying we were for the Guthrie and they were for infrastructure. Well, in my original bill I had more infrastructure than they ever thought about having," according to Langseth.

The Guthrie's Joe Dowling says Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum and tax committee chairman Ron Abrams were key supporters, along with Langseth, Anderson Kelliher and DFL Senators Dick Cohen and Larry Pogemiller. He says the $125 million theater should open in the spring of 2006.

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