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Senate unveils $889 million borrowing bill
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Sen. Keith Langseth is author of the Senate bonding bill, which proposes some $889 billion in public works projects. That is nearly one-third larger than the proposal passed by the House. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Senate DFL leaders Tuesday proposed a nearly $950 million package of capital improvement projects. About $890 million worth of projects would be funded by selling state-backed bonds, so the bill is commonly called the bonding bill. The package is far bigger than a $677 million bonding bill the House passed last week. The two bills could be difficult to reconcile, especially with less than two weeks left in the legislative session.

St. Paul, Minn. — The release of the Senate bonding bill drew a standing-room only crowd in a Capitol hearing room, as lobbyists and reporters scrambled to get copies of the bill.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, says the bill needs to be as large as it is to keep up the state's infrastructure. Nearly one-third of the spending in the bill would pay for building projects at state colleges and universities.

The bill also includes money for bridge repairs, an expansion of the Faribault prison, flood mitigation projects, and a new Minneapolis planetarium.

It contains $2 million for the proposed Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake. Gov. Pawlenty is asking the Legislature to approve $37.5 million for Northstar, but the House rejected Northstar money. Langseth says the fate of Northstar will be decided by Republicans.

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Image Sen. Cal Larson

"The Senate has gone in with the Northstar money for some time, and we've always supported it. And we decided this year, the only way that was ever going to happen is the governor and the House to come with it," Langseth says. "The governor did. The House monkeyed around with it, ended up at zero."

Langseth says by including a modest amount for Northstar in the bill, Senate Democrats are keeping the project alive to be debated in conference committee.

In addition to Northstar, the Senate bill contains several other projects Gov. Pawlenty recommended that the House rejected. They include the governor's homelessness initiative and a new Red Lake middle school. Some Senate Republicans say the bill is too fat.

"At this rate, we might have set a new high-water mark. We are spending $790,000 a minute in this committee," says Sen. David Gaither, R-Plymouth.

Gaither was the only legislator to vote against the bill in the Senate Capital Investment Committee. It then moved on to the Senate Finance Committee, where three Republicans voted against it.

Senate DFL leaders plan to bring up the bill on the floor on Thursday, and they'll need at least six Republicans to join every DFLer to pass the bill. The state Constitution requires a three-fifths majority for bills that authorize the state to go into debt.

The ranking Republican on the Capital Investment Committee, Sen. Cal Larson of Fergus Falls, says he'll probably vote for the bill. He says it includes a number of important projects that the state needs to fund.

The Senate bill is a little bit too -- in bonding terms -- porkish.
- Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum

"A lot of people care about a bonding bill. They probably care more about the bonding bill than any other issue that we're dealing with, because it creates jobs, and every part of the state is affected by the bonding bill. That's what we're supposed to do here," says Larson.

Traditionally, the main purpose of even-year sessions like this one has been to pass a capital improvements bill. Senate DFL leaders say if they pass the bill later this week, they could decide to adjourn for the year. Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar says the Senate will then have passed bills that balance the budget, fund the state's infrastructure and lengthen sex offender penalties.

"We think we've done our work, and we'd be ready to go home sometime at week's end. That's not a threat, it's not a promise, it's just a statement of where we are in the legislative process," says Johnson.

House Republican leaders say adjourning without agreement on major issues would be irresponsible. House and Senate leaders have yet to create conference committees to negotiate budget bills and other issues. If they name a bonding conference committee later this week, negotiators will have about a week to agree on a bill.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, says there's still enough time to work out differences.

"I think the House recognizes that we might have to move up a little bit, or change some projects or change some language ... We expect to do that," Sviggum says. "We're open to the Senate. But obviously the Senate bill is a little bit too -- in bonding terms -- porkish."

The sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Langseth, says if the bill gets smaller, he'll have to cut some higher education projects that both Republicans and Democrats support.

The list of projects includes:

-$23 million to set aside land for conservation and wetland protection.

-$60 million to expand the state prison in Faribault, about $25 million more than the House included.

-$20 million toward a biotechnology research building shared by the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic.

-$69 million for local bridge replacement, road improvement and other highway projects, including Northstar.

-$24 million for a planetarium at the new Minneapolis library.

-$8 million to upgrade and repair the Ordway Center in St. Paul.

-$4.9 million to upgrade Duluth's sewer system.

-$3 million toward a facility to house sex offenders in St. Peter.

-$500,000 toward construction of a World War II memorial on the Capitol mall.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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