Construction trades jobs can move the economy, says state Sen. Tom Bakk who on Thursday asked Gov. Tim Pawlenty to call a special session of the Minnesota Legislature.
Bakk, DFL-Cook, sent a letter to Republican Pawlenty on Wednesday suggesting the special session to consider a public works bonding bill sooner than the Feb. 4 start of the 2010 regular session.
"Construction spending matters, and those construction workers spend money in the communities when they're working there," Bakk said in a telephone interview.
"A lot of businesses benefit from turning the construction economy around," said Bakk, the Senate Taxes Committee chairman who is also a Democratic candidate for governor in 2010.
"Waiting to do a bonding bill, waiting to do projects we know we're going to do -- why would we wait and get all tied up in the budget discussions and not be able to get a bonding bill out and get those people working?" he said.
Pawlenty, who held his own news conference Thursday to propose a constitutional amendment to limit the state budget to revenues received in the prior biennium, said it was "silly" to think that construction work would begin early in the year.
The governor told Capitol reporters that lawmakers can wait until the 2010 session to work on a bonding bill, although he added he would be willing to discuss Bakk's idea.
But Bakk said his call for a December special session would allow shovel-ready projects to proceed and politics would be minimized.
"This risk of waiting until the session is the governor historically has wanted to use the bonding bill as a chip in the negotiations over the budget issues," Bakk said. "If you wait until February, and the governor says he's not going to sign a bonding bill until we resolve the budget, the bonding bill isn't going to pass until April or maybe May.
"So then the lead time of getting projects out to bid, getting contracts awarded -- pretty soon it's August before there's any construction," he added.
A number of projects are shovel-ready, he said, listing a new Duluth airport terminal and expansion at Lake Superior College in Duluth as two in his project. He said there is also $15 million in flood prevention projects in northwest Minnesota.
"One of the requirements would be that it be shovel-ready, because we have to do something with this economy," Bakk said.
With about $3 billion in bonding requests, Bakk envisions about a $1 billion bonding bill. Pawlenty's bill is expected to be between $700 million and $800 million.
"Last year he vetoed over $100 million out of the bonding bill," Bakk said. "I don't think we're going to come to an agreement with the governor on the size. We're just going to send him a bill and he's going to veto it until he gets down to a number that he's comfortable with."
Legislators may also ignore a traditional cap on bonding bills that has annual debt service not exceed 3 percent of general revenues.
"I think that has to happen," Bakk said, citing a recent study that puts Minnesota 42nd in the nation in per capita debt. "We are really low in the amount of debt that Minnesota is carrying. There is definitely some capacity."
The federal economic stimulus isn't enough, he said, noting a White House report saying that 14,000 Minnesota jobs have been created or saved by the federal money.
"That's not a lot of people when you have 174,000 people on unemployment," Bakk said. "Every week, for a couple of months now, 500 people have been getting their last check. And a lot of people have just quit looking for work."
The Iron Range Democrat also said he's willing to listen to Pawlenty's constitutional amendment proposal, but remains "skeptical" of it.
Pawlenty proposes that Minnesota voters be asked "shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require that state government general fund expenditures be limited to the amount of actual general fund revenues received by the state in the previous two-year budget period."
In a letter to Pawlenty, Bakk said he has put the governor on the agenda of a Dec. 7 meeting of the Senate Taxes Committee to discuss the proposal.
"Your idea is similar to one proposed years ago by then-Sen. Michele Bachmann," he wrote of the now controversial U.S. House member. "Unfortunately, she never agreed to bring her bill before the Senate Taxes Committee for a hearing, even after multiple requests by the chair. ... As the governor of our state, I trust that you truly support your idea and would like to see it passed next session."
Bakk said Bachmann's proposal was modeled after Colorado, which repealed their budget-limiting measure after the state found itself strapped for cash, even though it allowed inflationary increases and accounted for population growth.
"I would argue Pawlenty's probably is more problematic than even the Colorado one," Bakk said. "But I'm willing to have the discussion with him. ... If he's willing to propose something, the Legislature should be willing to hear the proposal."