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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published March 12 2010

Bonding bill OK’d despite criticism

ST. PAUL – Republicans blasted the public works funding bill as being too expensive, but, as the Minnesota House and Senate passed a revised measure Thursday, a Democrat delivered the most stinging criticism of the plan written by his own party members.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, complained about “the smelly underbelly of this bill,” saying legislative leaders violated their own rules when they gave money to a Minneapolis Veterans Home expansion project and skipped over one in Willmar.

“At the end of the day, it becomes very easy, for some reason, to say ‘yes’ to a $28 million project in Minneapolis and say ‘no’ to a rural Minnesota veterans mental health facility,” Juhnke said in an impassioned speech to fellow representatives.

The House passed the bill 89-44, with the Senate following 49-17. Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he will erase individual projects from the bill, but has yet to say which ones.

Republican Pawlenty originally suggested a $685 million public works bill. The bill the Democratic-control Legislature passed is just short of $1 billion, and pays for things ranging from repairing state buildings to helping fund civic and sports centers in some communities.

Pawlenty has three days from the time the bill arrives on his desk to decide what to cut.

Thursday’s votes were the second for the two chambers. After the first public works bill passed last week, legislative leaders held on to it so further negotiations could proceed with Pawlenty. But public works negotiators said Pawlenty would not sit down with them, so they added his priorities and went ahead with the revised version.

Key to the bill’s passage was putting $47.5 million in for a Moose Lake sex offender treatment center expansion, a top Pawlenty priority. He also gained permission to buy land along Lake Vermilion for a state park and to increase spending on prison security.

Another Pawlenty request was to spend $9.5 million on the Minneapolis Veterans Home, the item that bothered Juhnke, chairman of a committee that finances veterans projects. In the bonding bill’s first House and Senate vote, $5.5 million was approved for a veterans mental illness facility in Willmar, and nothing for the Minneapolis facility.

Republicans complained about projects such as a Rochester volleyball center and a Minneapolis sculpture receiving money.

“Whose votes are being bought here?” Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, asked.

Added Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City: “I really feel we have some misplaced priorities.”

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, called the bill “a trainload of pork.”

But Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, was pleased.

“What we ended up with is good for the state of Minnesota,” said Langseth, the chief Senate public works negotiator.

Langseth said he would not suggest to Pawlenty what projects to cut to reduce costs, but predicted “he isn’t going to do $300 million.”

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.