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House construction plan finds bipartisan backing
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"This bill does get the job done. It moves Minnesota ahead," said House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
House Republicans have released their proposal for capital improvements across the state. Their bonding bill's $816 million price tag is similar to Gov. Pawlenty's proposal, but about $200 million less than the bonding bill that passed the Senate last month. House leaders want to pass the bill next week, so that the process of reconciling the House and Senate differences can begin.

St. Paul, Minn. — Usually, lawmakers pass a sizable public works bill in the non-budget, even-year sessions. But that didn't happen last year, when the bonding bill got caught up in partisan gridlock. So this year, lawmakers will try to pass a budget and a capital investment bill.

Republican leaders say they've reached out to Democrats to get their support for the bill. House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon predicts widespread support when the bill reaches the floor next week.

"I'm going to tell you that the bill will have 100 votes on the House floor," he said.

The bill sailed out of the House Capital Investment committee on a unanimous voice vote. It would authorize the state to sell bonds to borrow $781 million for construction projects across the state. The remaining $35 million would be financed by colleges and universities.

Higher education is the bill's biggest beneficiary, with nearly $90 million for the University of Minnesota and nearly $155 million for MnSCU projects. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, says the bill focuses on the state's infrastructure needs.

"Whether it's the waste improvement fund, roads and bridges, redevelopment grants, things of that nature, a lot of that in there, and of course, higher education. Our higher ed... we have every project that was on the governor's list plus we're significantly higher in many MnSCU areas," according to Dorman.

But there's one MnSCU project that didn't make the cut: a $10 million renovation of Bridgeman Hall at Bemidji State University. The omission might not have attracted much notice, except that virtually every move in a bill this large is seen through the lens of politics.

The chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, DFLer Keith Langseth of Glyndon, says its exclusion appears to be punishment for DFL Rep. Frank Moe of Bemidji, who defeated a Republican incumbent in the November election.

"So they wipe out Bemidji. Just very blatantly political, a newly-elected Democrat; they just decided, no, he can't have anything," Langseth charged.

Dorman says the project's exclusion wasn't politically motivated; he says the project wasn't particularly high on MnSCU's list of priorities. He notes that projects that didn't make it into the House bill could still survive in conference committee if they're funded in the Senate version.

House DFL leaders say they wish the House bill was larger, but consider it a good start. The bill will need DFL votes to pass the House. State law requires a three-fifths majority for bills that authorize state borrowing, and Republicans have only a one-vote margin.

The lead Democrat on the Capital Investment Committee, Alice Hausman of St. Paul, says she thinks most DFLers will vote for the bill.

"We're saying to all of our members, 'this is phase 1, and at the end of the day, we do believe that this will be a good bill for both Democrats and Republicans in the state,'" she said.

Hausman says voters sent a message in November that they didn't like last year's stalemate over the bonding bill. Democrats have been calling for early passage of the bill, so that some of the projects can begin this spring.

The biggest single project in the House bill is an $85 million expansion of the Faribault prison. It also includes $10 million for the proposed Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake. Northstar funding has been highly contentious in the House, but House leaders say they're confident Northstar funding will survive in the House bill.

Gov. Pawlenty and the Senate bill would fund Northstar at $37 million. The House bill would also fund only about half of two projects Pawlenty supports: a homelessness initiative and improvements at the Minnesota Zoo.