ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton proposed $986 million in state borrowing Wednesday for construction projects ranging from civic centers to college science labs, delivering the opening bid in a debt debate that will play out among Minnesota lawmakers over the next four months.
The wish list, which he outlined at a news conference, was pulled from nearly $3 billion in infrastructure requests put before his administration. Those that made Dayton’s proposal are far from guaranteed because the Legislature will assemble competing plans, and the requirement that borrowing bills get a supermajority will play a big role in deciding what makes the cut.
Republicans have leverage they lack on other issues as the minority party because some votes from their side are needed to pass a bill. With election-year positioning already in swing, Dayton, a Democrat, said the odds of getting a bill of this size through are “difficult, but not insurmountable.”
The biggest single project on Dayton’s list is $126 million to complete the yearslong restoration of the state Capitol. Higher education construction is the largest category, consuming $233 million of the construction budget.
“We cannot have a world-class education system without first-class facilities,” Dayton said.
But there are also projects sought by local communities, such as money for convention center upgrades in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud.
All told, the proposal would authorize $1.4 billion worth of work. But a hefty chunk of the total cost would be covered by federal grants, local matching funds or private gifts.
There were some notable omissions from the proposal. Dayton didn’t recommend any money for a new light rail line connecting Minneapolis and its western suburbs. The governor said he didn’t want to tie up $125 million on a project facing considerable obstacles; he said he is exploring other funding mechanisms for the project.
Dayton’s plan is also devoid of money for development of the state park on Lake Vermilion, a priority of Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, who is from that area. Dayton’s family owns property on the lake, so he has recused himself from park decisions, but he said he would sign a bill that included money for building campgrounds and park amenities.
In many ways, the bonding bill is a political puzzle. Dayton’s plan includes some projects that could make a bill attractive to Republicans, such as a $20 million regional water project deemed pivotal to several southwestern Minnesota towns GOP legislators represent. And aside from partisan considerations, lawmakers from rural areas will watch closely to make sure the Twin Cities don’t suck up a disproportionate amount of money.
Majority House and Senate Democrats would need to find eight House Republicans and four Senate Republicans to pass a bonding bill, if they don’t have any defections in their own ranks.
Rep. Matt Dean, the lead Republican on the House Capital Investment Committee, said Dayton’s plan was too costly and had misplaced priorities. He highlighted a $3.4 million award to assist in snowmaking at the Spirit Mountain ski facility as an example of questionable expenses. He also said he is concerned by the call for several new public buildings.
“Our priorities would probably be more in line with taking care of the buildings we already have instead of proposing new ones,” Dean, of Dellwood, said.
The House committee’s chairwoman, Democratic Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul, called Dayton’s plan “an excellent start” to the debate. She said in an interview that she hopes to release her own proposal before the session convenes in late February.
Hausman said she favors using some of an $825 million projected budget surplus to pay cash for some projects the state would otherwise borrow for.
Minnesota, like most states, sells bonds to pay for infrastructure. That type of borrowing is akin to a home mortgage, with principal and interest paid back over 20 to 30 years.
In all, Minnesota currently has about $6.2 billion in outstanding bonds.
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