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Governor, legislators cut deal on bonding bill
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It's been awhile since state leaders have been able to toast a major agreement. In fact, a deal on the so-called bonding bill has eluded them for more than a year, keeping projects on the drawing board and driving up their costs. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Gov. Pawlenty and legislative leaders have reached a deal on a package of public works projects. If the agreement holds up, it would mark the most significant breakthrough at the Capitol in more than a year. The Legislature failed to pass a bonding bill last session, in the midst of partisan gridlock.

St. Paul, Minn. — The governor and legislative leaders were all smiles as they announced the deal. The package of construction projects would total nearly $945 million, with about $886 million in state borrowing. Gov. Pawlenty says negotiators met for several hours, going through the bill line by line.

"Even though there were some pointed differences at times, the tone and the attitude was one of 'let's get this done, we need it for the state of Minnesota,'" Pawlenty said.

The deal appears to have found middle ground between the House and Senate positions in many areas. The agreement contains nearly $322 million for higher education, and nearly $100 million for environmental projects.

Gov. Pawlenty got most of his key projects in the deal. The proposed Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake would receive $37 million, the amount needed to match federal money. Lawmakers agreed to renovate the Faribault prison at a cost of $85 million, and improve the Minnesota Zoo at a cost of nearly $25 million.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon says the bill would fund important projects across the state.

"If you look at the infrastructure, you look to higher education, you look to WIF, you look to the roads and bridges, there are many, many more reasons to be for the bill than there are against it," he said.

Sviggum predicted broad support for the bill in the House, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson made a similar prediction about Senate passage. While some final details must still be worked out, legislative leaders plan to pass the bill early next week. That would likely allow some projects to get underway yet this construction season.

The breakthrough came after Pawlenty called House and Senate leaders to his office for private negotiations. Last week, a conference committee failed to work out a deal during three days of public talks.

During those meetings, House and Senate negotiators sparred over projects in sometimes testy exchanges. The lead Senate negotiator, DFLer Keith Langseth of Glyndon, joked that the tension was pure theatrics. He calls the bonding deal "a good sign" for the rest of the session.

"It shows we can get together, we can get our work done, and I think sets the stage for getting together on a variety of other subjects between now and the end of session," he said.

Langseth had predicted an end-of-session meltdown if lawmakers were unable to agree on a bonding bill, which many lawmakers support because it contains projects for their districts. It remains to be seen whether lawmakers can reach similar bipartisan concensus on the session's biggest task: a new two-year budget.