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Northstar, college projects get boost in House bonding bill
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Rep. Phil Krinkie, the House Capital Investment Committee chairman, said he'll back any effort to remove the Northstar funding as the bill moves along. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
House Republicans have released a capital improvements proposal that's heavy on borrowing for higher education projects and includes funding for the Northstar commuter rail line. The proposal is smaller than Gov. Pawlenty's bonding recommendation, and doesn't fully fund some of the governor's priority projects such as a prison expansion. The bill gets its first hearing in a House committee on Wednesday.

St. Paul, Minn. — In even-numbered years like this one, the Legislature traditionally focuses on a package of public works projects. It's commonly called the bonding bill, because most of the projects are funded with money borrowed through bond sales. With a month left in the session, House Republicans have proposed a package totalling $683 million.

The state would borrow about $600 million of that, while the rest would come from other sources. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon says the House bill is smaller than the package Gov. Pawlenty proposed, yet it boosts funding in a couple of areas.

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Image 'An introductory offer'

"In order to increase transportation and higher education, still have a bill that's $100 million less than the governor's recommendation, there were obviously some choices we had to make that reduced or even eliminated the governor's recommendations," according to Sviggum.

Some of the projects that Gov. Pawlenty touted when he traveled around the state earlier this year are absent from the House bill, including money for a new exhibit at the Minnesota Zoo, funding for Red Lake schools and a homelessness initiative. And the biggest project in Gov. Pawlenty's proposal -- an expansion of the Faribault prison -- is chopped in half in the House bill.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Phil Krinkie of Shoreview, says many members of the Capital Investment Committee that he chairs didn't think the Faribault expansion was a good idea right now. Krinkie says the state can rent more beds at a privately-run prison in Appleton. Krinkie says the Legislature should study both privatizing prisons and shortening sentences of non-violent offenders to lower prison costs.

"I think we're all agreed that we want to keep the most dangerous individuals locked up longer. Those people who are of no real threat to society perhaps we can release them a little earlier. But I'm not the expert in that area, we'll let the experts study it and come back to us with their recommendations," Krinkie said.

Krinkie's counterpart in the Senate, Capital Investment Committee Chairman Keith Langseth, says he doesn't understand what the House is doing. Langseth, a DFLer from Glyndon, says at a time when House Republicans want life sentences for sex offenders, not funding the Faribault expansion makes no sense.

"Now, how they coincide that with the fact that they want to lock everybody up and throw away the key. And that's the way they are. They underfund the prisons, they cut operations, they want to put people in prison longer, and then they want to underfund the whole system. I just think they're very irresponsible over there," Langseth said.

Langseth says the House bill also underfunds higher education projects and wastewater treatment projects. More than a third of the House bill goes for projects at Minnesota colleges and universities, including the University of Minnesota, but Langseth says that doesn't address all of the capital improvement needs in higher education. He says his bill will probably total around $890 million.

Langseth says he plans to release his bonding proposal once the House passes its bill, in case there are major changes as it moves through the process. One item in the House bill that could change is the Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake.

Gov. Pawlenty and Speaker Sviggum support the project, but many Republicans oppose it. House transportation committee chair Bill Kuisle, a Republican from Rochester, is opposed to Northstar, because he says the state has no plan to pay for operating the line once it's up and running.

"I think we should be upfront and have a funding source. I've been saying that all along; we are biting into something we have no idea how we're going to pay for," Kuisle said.

Kuisle says there will be an attempt to remove Northstar funding from the bill on the House floor, and he predicts a big floor fight and a close vote that could go either way.

The bill's sponsor, chairman Krinkie, opposes Northstar, and says he's not sure if he'll vote for his own bill when it reaches the floor. He says it has more pork than he'd like. But Krinkie says because the state constitution requires a supermajority of three-fifths to pass a bonding bill, he had to add projects that lawmakers wanted for their districts.

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