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DFL can't muster enough votes for bonding bill
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DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson failed to get enough Republicans to support his party's bonding bill. He says if Senate Republicans won't vote for a bonding bill, there probably won't be one this year. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The Minnesota Senate Thursday defeated a $950 million package of public works projects. The bill needed 41 votes to pass, but fell two votes short. Most Republicans voted against it, saying the bill is too large. Senate DFL leaders say it's unlikely there will be a bonding bill this session.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Senate capital investment bill contains building projects for state colleges and universities, bridge repairs, prison expansions and dozens of other projects around the state. It's called the bonding bill because the bulk of the projects would be financed by money borrowed through bond sales.

The Senate bill is nearly $300 million larger than the bonding bill the House passed last week. Senate Republicans say the state shouldn't max out its credit card at a time when the state faces a projected $160 million budget deficit. Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, says he can't vote to authorize borrowing nearly $1 billion.

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Image Sen. Keith Langseth

"How do we pay for it? We have no way to pay for it. We're running $10 million to $15 million a month in the red, with no substantive effort to rectify that deficit. This is fiscally irresponsible to take this up at this point," Nienow says.

The bill failed on a vote of 39-28. The state Constitution requires a three-fifths majority on legislation that authorizes the state to go into debt. Senate DFL leaders say there may not be another chance to take up the bill. The Legislature is required to adjourn one week from Monday.

DFL leaders say the bill failed because Gov. Pawlenty told Senate Republicans to vote against it. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, says some Republicans promised to vote for the bill, then changed their minds after the governor leaned on them.

"There's a strange thing going on there within that caucus that did not exist in the previous 22 years I've been here," Langseth says. "We used to be a Minnesota Senate. We were an institution and I think both sides of the aisle were very proud of that. Now, we're controlled by the outside, totally and completely."

Gov. Pawlenty sent a letter to senators this week outlining his bonding priorities. He wrote that the capital investment bill shouldn't be any larger than the $760 million package he proposed, and that he won't sign a bonding bill until the Legislature passes a budget balancing plan.

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Image Gov. Pawlenty

The House and Senate haven't agreed on how to balance the budget, and legislative leaders have yet to create conference committees to negotiate differences.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna, says the Legislature can wait until next year to pass a bonding bill, even though the single largest project in the bill -- an expansion of the Faribault prison -- is in his district.

"I have $80 million in Senator Langseth's bonding bill. My goodness - so what? So what? And you know that we need prisons. And I have the Faribault prison in my area. But we also know that we have a governor who said, move it down a little bit," says Day.

The defeat of the bonding bill isn't unprecedented. In fact, it happened just last year. Senate Republicans refused to vote for a $418 million capital investment package. House and Senate leaders eventally agreed on a bill about half that size, which passed in special session.

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Image Speaker Steve Sviggum

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says he doesn't fault Senate Republicans for voting against the Senate bonding bill this year. He says it's too fat, and was put together by Senate DFL leaders with no Republican input.

"They did not have a committee hearing on the bill -- not a committee hearing the entire session. Took and plopped it down on Tuesday of this week in front of the members who had never even seen it before," Sviggum says.

"So members weren't able to give and take, they weren't able to have ownership, they weren't able to get their priorities in there. This was only the priorities of Senate Democrats, and it failed," says Sviggum. "I think they need to be more inclusionary, they need to reach out, they certainly gotta have some hearings and they better do it pretty quickly."

Senate DFL leaders defend the process they used to put the bill together. Langseth says his committee toured dozens of projects around the state, and met with interested groups. He says the bill contains many projects that are important to Republican legislators.

Langseth says the bill needs to be as large as it is to maintain the state's infrastructure. But Langseth acknowledges that if there is a bonding bill this year, it will end up smaller than the package he proposed.

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