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House drops northern projects from bonding bill; was it political payback?
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One of the projects in question is a visitor's center at the Big Bog State Recreation Area in Waskish. (Courtesy of The Upper Red Lake Association)
House and Senate lawmakers began meeting this week to hammer out a bonding plan for some of the state's biggest building projects. Folks in northern Minnesota are watching the process closely. That's because several projects in northern Minnesota communities were cut out of the House bonding bill. They total around $55 million. DFLers say the omission was politically motivated. Some Republicans, meanwhile, place blame on two freshman lawmakers, who they say didn't do their jobs.

Bemidji, Minn. — The bonding bill passed by the House last year included millions of dollars for capital projects in northern Minnesota. There was money for a school in Red Lake and a visitor's center at the Big Bog recreation park in Waskish. In Bemidji, there were funds to complete the final unfinished section of the state's Paul Bunyan Trail. There was expansion money for Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College.

In this year's House bonding bill, there was nothing. All of the projects had been zeroed out.

Some DFL lawmakers say the snub was a deliberate attempt by Republicans to punish voters in two northern House districts where DFL candidates defeated Republican incumbents. Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, chairs the Senate's Capital Investment Committee. He says the Senate's bonding bill includes much of the funding left out by the House.

"What went on in the House was blatantly political," said Langseth. "It is definitely retribution, without a question. Why were they such great projects last year, and they're simply unworthy projects this year?"

The issue has enflamed partisan sniping in Bemidji, the home of DFL Rep. Frank Moe, who defeated three-term Republican Doug Fuller last fall. Bill Batchelder managed Fuller's campaign. He, along with House Republican leaders, accuse Moe of not doing his job.

"Quite frankly, it came out early on that Frank Moe did not lobby as he said he would," said Batchelder. "People voted for a change. Frank Moe promised much more than what Doug Fuller was delivering for this area. Now, we're going to be lucky to get just pieces of what the original bills were."

Rep. Moe says he started lobbying for the bonding projects soon after he was elected. He says his projects fell victim to partisan politics.

"They've got to say what they've got to say. And I have to defend myself, and remind people how hard I've been working," said Moe. "Throwing partisan jabs now, I really don't think ... that's going to help our case at all. So I'm trying to avoid doing that."

Moe says the same thing happened to freshman Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids. Two of the big projects were in Sailer's district.

At least one Republican House member defends Moe and Sailer. Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, says the lack of funds for the Bemidji region has nothing to do with the two freshmen lawmakers' effectiveness in St. Paul.

"I don't buy into it one iota," said Howes. "You can't measure how effective a representative is in the first eight weeks... I believe they were doing their job adequately, and maybe even more than adequately."

Howes says, however, he also doesn't buy into the suggestion that the funding snub was political retribution by Republicans. Instead, he suspects the projects were withheld from the House bill as a bargaining chip for the House-Senate negotiations that are going on now.

"I think it's just the way the House committee positioned itself for negotiations with the Senate," Howes said. "You know, we do that sometimes... And those projects were very good projects, I'm thinking, for the House to use as negotiating tools. I don't think politics played as big as a role as some people might want to think."

In the end, Howes says he believes much of the funding requested for northern Minnesota will be included in the final bonding bill.

Senate Democrats on the conference committee say they won't sign off on a bonding bill that doesn't include at least some of those projects.