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St. Paul, Minn. — Last spring, state lawmakers adjourned without agreeing on much, including what was to have been the centerpiece of their efforts: investing in public works projects around the state.
Now, Gov. Pawlenty says that elected officials should simply approve those projects that were proposed in common by his administration, the Senate, and the House. But the Republican plans are essentially a subset of what the DFL-controlled Senate has proposed. That means excluding "non-consensus" items is mainly a loss to the Senate.
"If the Senate went along with it as the proposal was made, we would basically do the governor's and/or the House projects and so many of ours would not be done," says Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, who chairs the Senate Capital Investment Committee.
House Democrats have also raised their eyebrows at the governor's proposal, noting that this month's elections significantly reduced the GOP majority in the House. They say any bonding decisions, therefore, should wait until the start of the new year, when the new crop of lawmakers will be sworn in. But Pawlenty and Republican leaders say a delay would mean inflated project costs, tardy construction schedules, and perhaps higher interest rates.
Lee Mehrkens, a state budget analyst, told Langseth's committee that costs are rising much more rapidly than in the recent past.
"We've seen one of the largest jumps in construction inflation that what we had seen going back to the 1970s. And that caught prognosticators by surprise. The upshot is that for calendar year 2004, we think that construction inflation on an annualized basis is probably running somewhere around 11 percent," Mehrkens said.
Mehrkens says normal construction inflation, by contrast, has hovered around three percent. Democrats say they're aware of the pressure to act quickly, but they say waiting six weeks until the next regular session is likely to have a minimal impact.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, in a written response to Pawlenty, questioned why the governor hadn't called a special session much earlier if he was concerned about inflation. And Johnson argued that if a scaled-back bill were to be passed next month, it would leave no incentive for the governor or House Republicans to consider the additional projects favored by Senate Democrats.
Pawlenty says, however, his proposal won't stop additional debate.
"I can see where somebody might be concerned about it. But if this bill were focused on just those limited consensus or emergency items, I think there would still be a strong enough appetite to get a second installment done," Pawlenty said.
Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, says he's not ready to accept the governor's assurances. Metzen says two higher education projects important to his South St. Paul district are missing from Pawlenty's list of uncontroversial items. He says if they're not included in a potential special session, he's doubtful he'd get Republican support to include them later.
"The governor doesn't have them in. Now, OK, we don't put those two in, Metzen, four months from now you might get something. Well, that's not good enough for me. So I think it should be one package," Metzen said.
Pawlenty is scheduled to present a more detailed list of possible special session projects soon, and lawmaker from both bodies and both sides of the aisle say they're willing to discuss what or how that list could be amended. Pawlenty, for his part, says he's open to adding other projects, including money for a proposed Northstar Commuter Rail line from Minneapolis to Big Lake. That might shore up some Democratic support, but it would likely cause some in the GOP to wince. House Republicans deleted Northstar funding earlier this year from their list of approved investments.