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Pawlenty's Rochester plans: Part policy, part politics
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Gov. Pawlenty focused a lot of attention and, potentially, state money, on the Rochester area in his State of the State message. Some say it's designed partly to shore up support for the GOP in that area. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
If Gov. Tim Pawlenty has his way, the city of Rochester could be in for a building boom. Pawlenty delivered his annual State of the State address from Rochester Tuesday, and outlined a list of projects for the city and the region. Chief among them would be a new, four-year university. Political observers say the attention on Rochester could be an attempt to shore up Republican support in what's long been considered GOP territory.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty isn't the first to take the State of the State show on the road -- but the speech, including Pawlenty's first two, is traditionally given in the state Capitol's House chambers.

Pawlenty says he decided to travel south in order to better connect state government with its constituents. And he made it clear to Rochester residents how direct that connection can be.

"I'm announcing a proposal for the Rochester area to take greater control over its own higher education destiny," said Pawlenty. "I propose that we create a university here in Rochester."

Pawlenty didn't offer many specifics, other than to suggest that the current Rochester University Center, a classroom facility shared by several schools, would form the nucleus of the plan. The governor says he'll set aside $3 million to start the process.

Pawlenty is also proposing another $15 million in operating funds for a Rochester genomics laboratory to be run by the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic. That funding comes on top of $22 million he's asked the state to borrow in order to build the facility.

"I want to be perfectly clear on this point: I won't sign a bonding bill this year without this project in it," said Pawlenty.

The Legislature failed to pass a bonding bill for funding public works projects last year, when partisan gridlock brought the session to a standstill. Many observers blame the lack of progress for a string of Republican defeats in the fall House elections -- and a corresponding rise in the strength of the DFL minority. Those election results included two upsets in the Rochester area.

Rep. Andy Welti, DFL-Plainview, is one of the beneficiaries of that trend. He says the governor's attention to southeastern Minnesota shows he heard a clear message in the 2004 election.

"I think definitely he did want to highlight those key points, those key elements that are crucial to greater Minnesota and southeast Minnesota," said Welti. "But also there could possibly be some political implications, maybe trying to build his base of support here for the next election."

Welti called the governor's visit and his initiatives "positive." He says the Rochester projects do more than just burnish the governor's reputation. Welti says the university plan and the genomics facility are important economic development tools for the entire region, if not the entire state.

Welti's Republican predecessor, Bill Kuisle, says the governor's emphasis on greater Minnesota is not a post-election conversion. He notes the Mayo Clinic site that hosted Pawlenty's speech was born, in part, due to tax incentives included in Pawlenty's Job Opportunity Building Zones, which were enacted in the governor's first year in office. Kuisle says despite voter disapproval at last year's gridlock, he rejects criticism that Republican leadership has been ineffective.

"You know, 'the do-nothing Legislature.' There was a lot of great things that came out of it in the last two years, and this is one of them. Seven hundred new jobs. How can you beat that?" said Kuisle.

Rochester Sen. Sheila Kiscaden is the Legislature's only Independence Party member. She says Pawlenty's appearance there is simply part of his overall style.

"This governor is all over the state. And so, I think this is consistent with his comfort with the people of Minnesota, with his desire to know the people of Minnesota and be all over the state. This has been a consistent way that he's governed," said Kiscaden.

Kiscaden's own political career has taken her from the GOP to the Independence Party, and finally to an alliance with Senate Democrats. As such she may be an indicator for shifting sentiments in the Rochester area -- and a reminder that Pawlenty was actually outpolled in the Rochester area in 2002 by another IP candidate -- former Democrat Tim Penny.