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Legislature passes bonding bill despite gripes

Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm tells reporters Thursday that he thinks Gov. Tim Pawlenty should allow all $1 billion worth of a public works funding bill to be spent. Watching is Sen. Keith Langseth of Glyndon. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Republicans blasted a 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 speech against the plan written by his own party members.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, complained about "the smelly underbelly of this bill," saying that 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.

Originally, Republican Pawlenty suggested a $685 million public works bill. The bill the Democratic-control Legislature passed is just short of $1 billion, paying 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 make decisions on what to cut.

Thursday's votes were the second for the two chambers. After the first public works bill passed, legislative leaders held onto it so further negotiations could proceed with Pawlenty. However, public works negotiators said that 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.

Legislative rules say no project may be funded during a House-Senate conference committee unless either the House or Senate earlier approved it.

"At the end of the day, members, it is partisan petty politics in the back rooms of the Capitol," Juhnke said in asking fellow lawmakers to send the bill back for more negotiation. "I will not put up with this."

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, agreed with Juhnke: "The most alarming thing is exactly, precisely what Chair Juhnke said over there. It is about throwing southwestern Minnesota under the bus."

Republicans complained that projects such as a Rochester volleyball center and a Minneapolis sculpture would receive 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."

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, offered his advice to Pawlenty: "I don't think he should cut anything. I think we have a very good compromise here."

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.