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House passes bonding bill; rejects commuter rail line
The Minnesota House has voted overwhelmingly for a $677 million package of capital improvement projects. About $600 million in projects would be funded by money borrowed through bond sales, so the bill is commonly called the bonding bill. The project that drove the six-hour debate was an item that was removed from the bill earlier this week - the proposed Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake. Northstar supporters failed in their attempt to put funding for the line back into the bill.

St. Paul, Minn. — The capital improvements bill would fund building projects at state colleges and universities, prison renovations and bridge repairs. It also contains dozens of smaller projects, from a hockey arena in Bemidji to a police station in Blue Earth. But the project that dominated the House debate isn't in the bill. Supporters of the Northstar commuter rail line proposed a series of unsuccessful amendments to put Northstar back in the bill. One amendment would have included $37.5 for the rail line by taking out some of the money for higher education repair projects.

House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, a DFLer from St. Paul, says House Republicans were asking lawmakers to choose between the needs of commuters or college students.

"They're presenting us with an alternative of saying no to the students, no to our state college and university system, no to the University of Minnesota, that they're going to have to drive up tuition, that you're going to have kids in leaking classrooms, that we're going to endanger our economic growth, so that we can have the possibility of trying to relieve some of the congestion in the northwestern suburbs," Entenza said.

The amendment failed by a vote of 55-78. Many House Republicans oppose Northstar because they view it as a heavily subsidized transit project that the state has no plan to pay for on an ongoing basis. Republican Representative Mark Olson is one of the harshest critics, even though Northstar would run to his district in Big Lake.

"Economic sustainability in America boils down to users pay their own way. Transit is needed, but we need transit that is cost-effective," he said.

Northstar supporters say they've lowered the state's portion of the project cost. Two years ago, Gov. Ventura called for $120 million for Northstar, and the House rejected the funding. This year, Gov. Pawlenty recommended about a third of that. The Senate is likely to include Northstar in its bonding proposal that will be released next week.

Representative Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, says the House vote isn't a fatal blow to the project, but he says something needs to happen this year or the state will lose federal matching money.

"This is the last chance, I don't think there is next year. The counties have worked very hard, and it still needs to go forward, and I'm sorry the House couldn't provide that help," he said.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon, who opposed Northstar in the past, changed his mind this year after Gov. Pawlenty threw his support behind the project. Sviggum says he thinks the governor will pressure the Legislature to fund the commuter rail line this year. If the bill comes back from conference committee with Northstar money in it, some lawmakers think it may not get the necessary 81 votes to pass in the House. The state constitution requires a three-fifths majority for bills that authorize the state to go into debt. Because of that, the capital investment bill has always been a tricky balancing act, as lawmakers struggle to find the right mix of projects to garner the needed three-fifths vote.

This bill passed by a vote of 102-30. The bill's sponsor, Republican Phil Krinkie of Shoreview, says the House bill is more pork-filled than he'd like, but he says that's the only way to pass a bonding bill.

"We can always say that maybe this project shouldn't have been in, maybe nanotechnology shouldn't have been in, and maybe an issue such as the central Iron Range sewer project, so again, we're all parochial in our interests here, we come from 134 areas of the state and 134 different backgrounds, but on whole I think it's a good bill," Krinkie said.

More than a third of the spending in the bill is for projects at the University of Minnesota and the MnSCU system. While there's no Northstar money, the bill does contain other transportation projects such as the Cedar Avenue busway and local roads and bridges. It would renovate the Faribault prison, but would not pay for an expansion of the prison that Gov. Pawlenty recommended. The bill is about $80 million smaller than Gov. Pawlenty's bonding proposal. The Senate package is expected to be larger.

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