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Dayton proposes $1.5 billion bonding bill for MN public works projects

Minnesota Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester says Republicans likely will not support fully funding a $1.5 billion public works bill Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton unveiled Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL—Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is bringing back a public works funding bill much like he offered last year, proposing to spend $1.5 billion on projects ranging from water treatment plants to fixing college buildings.

"These projects have a direct economic benefit," the governor told reporters in a conference call Wednesday, Jan. 4.

"I am presenting today a bonding bill that should have been passed nine months ago," Dayton said. "Time is of the essence to make up for that last bonding year." The Legislature usually passes major bonding bills in even-numbered years, but the House and Senate failed to agree on one in the final minutes of the 2016 session. The governor and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, could not reach a deal on that and other issues for a summer or fall special session. Dayton said that he considers the bill he suggested Wednesday, the second day of the year's legislative session, pass early in the year so construction can begin this summer. Bonding bills usually pass near the end of session in May.

Dayton said that with 44 new legislators this year, he hopes a big bonding bill gets traction.

Republicans who control the House and Senate have said they will consider a public works bill this year, to be funded by the state selling bonds, but they have not committed to one.

New Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said that he is interested in passing tax cuts and Dayton is interested in passing a bonding bill, and he suggested they could come to an agreement with the two measures.

Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, who leads the Senate bonding committee, said the Dayton proposal "probably is a little strong for Republicans." He suggested the GOP might be able to stomach a bill shy of $1 billion.

While some Republicans say no bonding bill is needed in 2017, Senjem disputed that. "We do need a bonding bill at some level."

Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget, the state's finance agency, said borrowing money for a $1.5 billion bill is well within the state's capacity.

Dayton used Worthington as an example of why the bonding bill is needed. The Lewis and Clark water project has stopped short of that southwestern Minnesota community.

Without more water, Dayton said, the local meat packing plant cannot expand. If Lewis and Clark is finished and gives the city more water, the plant can hire more people, he added.

Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith also talked about water and sewage treatment projects that they say are needed to clean up the state's water, and help its economy.

"These strong projects really are bread and butter economic development projects that are going to benefit every part of the state," Smith said of bonding projects in general.

Organizations supporting a bonding bill wasted no time in backing the Dayton plan.

"We are particularly glad that the governor's bonding proposal includes $167 million for grant and loan programs that help cities pay for necessary repairs and upgrades to their water treatment facilities," said Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. "Clean water is an essential part of a healthy community and we are pleased the governor recognizes that cities need more financial assistance from the state to ensure that all Minnesotans continue to have access to this fundamental need."

Leaders of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State system also praised Dayton for including funds, mostly to fix campus buildings and to add or modernize classrooms.

Dayton said that the state received requests for $3.7 billion worth of projects. His recommendations are divided among the state: 35 percent statewide, 35 percent greater Minnesota and 30 percent Twin Cities.

State hospitals

Among the most discussed projects are ones at state hospitals to improve facilities for the mentally ill and for sex offenders.

One project at the State Security Hospital in St. Peter would cost $70 million to improve security. Patients and staff have been injured in fights and Dayton wants facilities remodeled to make them safer.

"Those facilities have been neglected for a couple of decades," Dayton said.

Also at the St. Peter facility, he proposes spending $14.5 million to improve sex offender facilities.

Dayton suggests building some new housing for sex offenders who have been committed after serving their prison terms and are preparing to be released to the community. Some offenders can be released, Dayton said, but they need interim housing between the current prison-like facility and release to a security home in the community.

Rail and pipeline safety

Also on Dayton's wish list are rail and pipeline safety projects.

Most expensive of them is $42 million for a Moorhead project to put railroad tracks and streets at different levels. Officials say that railroad crossing gates would not work in the area, where there are two sets of tracks and multiple streets.

Smith said that Moorhead residents are forced to make travel plans based on the schedule of about 85 trains that pass through the city daily. Many of those trains carry crude oil from western North Dakota, creating a safety concern.

Another rail crossing Dayton wants upgraded is at the Prairie Island Indian Community in Red Wing, at a nearly $15 million cost.

About 40 trains a day, some carrying oil, block regular traffic and emergency vehicles from getting to a nuclear power plant and the Prairie Island community.

The Dayton plan also calls for a $13 million Coon Rapids railroad grade separation, a $3.5 million rail and pipeline safety training facility at the National Guard's Camp Ripley and a new $33 million state emergency operations center.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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