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Pawlenty to sign $886 million construction projects bill soon
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The bill's House author, Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, apologized for a late addtion to the bonding bill, which threatened to scuttle agreement. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The House and Senate have voted overwhelmingly to approve almost $1 billion worth of building and maintenance projects. The capital improvements bill is the most significant piece of legislation to pass both bodies in the 2005 session. It comes almost a year after lawmakers hit an impasse during a similar debate in the last legislative session.

St. Paul, Minn. — Lawmakers came to St. Paul in January pledging to take quick action the public works bill that ground to a halt in last year's legislative gridlock. Republican House Majority Leader Erik Paulsen of Eden Prairie says the 115-to-16 vote in favor of the bill is testament to a spirit of bipartisanship that was noticeably lacking in 2004.

"We were honest and upfront," he said. "We wanted to move the bill quick. We wanted to move it and who the people that we wanted to get things done. And I'm hoping we will continue in a bipartisan effort to deal with the budget issues as we move forward."

The bill funds almost $950 million worth of projects, the vast majority of which are financed by borrowing money through the sale of state bonds. That includes substantial investments in higher education buildings and classrooms, a down payment on the Northstar commuter rail line linking Minneapolis and Big Lake, and a prison renovation project in Faribault.

Money is also channeled to the Shubert Theater in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, and a secure nursing home for sex offenders in St. Peter.

DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza says the bill also means roughly 10,000 new jobs.

"People who have been sitting and waiting for the job to get done will now finally be able to get behind the bulldozers, get behind the scrapers, and get the roads and the bridges and the building projects accomplished that we need," he said.

The overall size of the bill is closer to the DFL-controlled Senate's position of more than $1 billion than to Gov. Pawlenty's or the GOP-controlled House's. Both the House and the governor favored just over $800 million worth of projects. But some Republicans worried that even the compromise number will swell if other bills are passed later in the session.

Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud, a former chair of the House Capital Investments Committee and one of the "no" votes, says several projects, including upgrades to state transportation buildings and rural agricultural loans, are missing from the bill and likely to be advanced under separate cover.

"This bill is bigger than it really appears," he says. "There's going to be other bonding, at least from the Senate, coming forward in other bills. I think you're going to be looking at pretty close to $1 billion by the time it's said and done."

The measure was almost delayed further when some House Republicans objected to a provision tucked into the nearly 60-page bill. The controversial section authorizes the Amateur Sports Commission to lease a portion of the land it owns, but the proposal had never received public scrutiny in the normal committee process. That's a violation of legislative rules.

Ultimately, House members voted to suspend the rules and approve the bill. Debate in the Senate was noticeably shorter, but the result was similar. The bill passed 61-to-3.

"It's a little healthier and a little more broad-based," says DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson. "But folks are already starting to talk about the next year's bonding bill. You know, some folks got some bricks and cement. Next year they'll come back and want some paint."

Johnson says the negotiations on the bill helped set a more collegial tone in the Legislature. But he says that doesn't meant the upcoming debate on balancing the budget will wrap up as quickly. He says he doesn't expect a meltdown like last year's, but that the debate on taxing and spending won't be without "rancor."