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Pawlenty's bonding plan -- how much is enough?

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced his complete bonding proposal Tuesday, which totals nearly $900 million. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Gov. Pawlenty is proposing a nearly $900 million package of capital improvement projects around the state. He released his complete bonding proposal Tuesday. It includes $270 million for state colleges and universities, and $60 million to complete the Northstar commuter rail line. But legislators who chair the House and Senate capitol investment committees say the package falls short in the area of higher education.

St. Paul, Minn. — In even-numbered years, the Legislature typically passes a sizable capital investment bill authorizing the state to issue bonds to pay for construction projects. This is an election year, when many lawmakers like to be able to get funding for projects in their districts.

Gov. Pawlenty, who's also up for reelection this year, is proposing a bonding bill that's several hundred million dollars larger than the latest revenue forecast assumed. The bill's total price tag would be $897 million.

"We think this is a big enough bill. You look at the historical pattern, you adjust even for inflation or particularly adjust for the context of the times in which we live -- this is a big bill," Pawlenty said.

The vast majority of projects would be funded by the state, with less than $90 million coming from other sources. State colleges and universities are required to finance one-third of the cost of their projects.

Higher education is the biggest beneficiary in the bill. It includes about $128 million for projects at the University of Minnesota, and about $143 million for the MnSCU system. That's about half of what MnSCU was requesting.

Pawlenty singled out the MnSCU request, citing it as an example of how agencies tend to ask for too much, and are then disappointed when they only get half.

"And our response will be, yes, your request to begin with was abnormally large, and you should have brought in a more reasonable and focused request to begin with," Pawlenty said. "I don't mean to pick on MnSCU, but that is a common phenomenon and refrain in this process."

MnSCU spokesperson Melinda Voss says MnSCU has a rigorous review process for bonding requests. She says MnSCU narrowed down a much larger list of needs to focus on the most critical improvements to buildings across the state.

"Many of these buildings are older, and so they need repairs. They need new roofs, they might need replacement in heating and cooling systems, they may need tuckpointing," Voss said.

The two legislators who chair the House and Senate capital investment committees echoed MnSCU's concerns. Senate bonding chair Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, says Pawlenty's proposal shortchanges higher education, and MnSCU in particular.

"When the governor was in China, he said something that I really agreed with. He said that a lot of our non-skilled jobs were going to end up going to China. He said we are going to have to do a better job of educating and training our workforce," Langseth said. "I agreed with what he said, but apparently he doesn't."

Pawlenty's proposal doesn't include money for numerous local requests for arts and athletic facilities. He says the state is getting too many requests for sports, arts and regional event centers.

Langseth is calling for a bonding bill about $150 million larger than the governor's proposal.

Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee, says the Legislature will want to spend more on higher education projects than the governor proposed. He says by the end of the session, the bill will probably be closer to Langseth's number.

"I think it's a little bit of an auction. I think that had the governor come out and said $900 million, I do think the Senate would try to go it at $1.1 billion," said Dorman.

Dorman says he thinks funding for the Northstar commuter rail line will be less controversial among House Republicans than it's been in the past. Pawlenty pushed for funding the commuter rail line in the fast-growing northern suburbs, and says this year's bonding bill can complete the project.

"Sixty million dollars is the full needed amount to take the next step on that important and marquee transit project between Minneapolis and Big Lake," said Pawlenty. "Hopefully, this commitment will take the next step in getting this recognized and approved by the next level of review by the federal government."

Pawlenty is also recommending $2.5 million in planning money for a transit corridor between Minneapolis and St. Paul. He says it's premature for the state to authorize a larger amount, because it hasn't been determined whether the corridor will have a dedicated bus line or rail.

Pawlenty has already announced proposals for prison expansions and environmental projects.

Pawlenty's proposal doesn't include money for numerous local requests, ranging from the Schubert Theatre in Minneapolis to a new hockey arena in Duluth.

Pawlenty says the state is getting too many requests for sports, arts and regional event centers. He's proposing stricter guidelines on which regional projects qualify for state funds.

But in an election year, there may not be much interest in guidelines that could disqualify some local projects.