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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published February 01 2011

GOP balks at Dayton's public works plan

ST. PAUL – Republican legislative leaders took little time to reject Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton’s plan Monday to fund public works projects.

“We are saying ‘no’ to a bonding bill unless it is an emergency,” said Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, who leads the House committee dealing with the issue.

A GOP spokesman later said the only public works bill acceptable would be to fund natural disasters like floods.

In unveiling a $531 million proposal, Dayton said he cannot force Republicans to approve borrowing money. “I will sign what they send,” he said.

Dayton’s proposal was unique for Minnesota public works bills. He delivered a list of projects and asked lawmakers to add $469 million more for a $1 billion bonding bill.

Republicans who control both legislative chambers showed no interest.

“It is the wrong time to take out the credit card,” House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said.

About half of Dayton’s plan would fund projects at state-run colleges and universities. The biggest would be to build a $51 million University of Minnesota nanotechnology center.

Much of the college and university spending would go to repairs such as replacing water boilers and fixing roofs on campuses.

Dayton also proposed fixing other state-owned facilities statewide, as well as funding expansion of civic centers in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud. Rochester’s proposal would get $28 million, although Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, said bonding should wait until next year.

The Legislature traditionally approves public works projects, funded by the state selling bonds, in even-numbered years. However, Dayton said his plan, if funded at $1 billion, could create 28,000 jobs in a rough economic time.

“This is about putting Minnesotans back to work,” he said.

Longtime bonding chairman Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said Republicans will complain about the bill, but in the end “it will happen.”

Reporters repeatedly pressed Republicans to see if there was any interest in a 2011 bonding bill. They would not close the door until Howes ended a news conference by saying there was no interest other than to help communities hit by disasters.

Senjem, Howe’s Senate counterpart, said a $7 million proposal to expand sex offender treatment facilities could be considered. “We will have plenty of time to look at that,” he said.

Howes said Republicans want to find out why $1.5 billion worth of bonds already authorized for public works projects have not been sold, and the projects have yet to begin.

“Why haven’t we done anything?” he asked, adding that if projects are not ready they may be canceled.

It was not clear if Republicans would consider using money freed by “unbonding” projects for a new public works bill.

Howes said his committee will not consider funding local projects such as civic centers.

“We are going to look at true state-owned assets,” he said.

One area that likely will gain significant support is money to fight floods, although the amount spent may be up for debate.

Langseth was happy that Dayton began funding the $55 million the senator said is needed for flood projects, especially in northwestern Minnesota, but only about half is in the bill. He said lawmakers need to add the other half before sending Dayton the measure for his signature.

Dayton urged lawmakers to pass his bill within a few weeks, which could spur construction this spring. Criteria for being in his bonding bill included being ready for work to begin quickly, although the governor said some projects may not start for years.

In a year when policymakers are concentrating on jobs, Dayton said this is the best way.

“These are public bonds that create jobs in the private sector,” Dayton said.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com