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Budget first, then bonding, says Howes

Newly named Minnesota House bonding head Larry Howes already is being lobbied for projects, but balancing the budget must come first, he says.

"I've gotten congratulatory e-mails mostly from lobbyists that participate in the bonding process" Howes, R-Walker, said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "I'm a little bit more popular than I was a few months ago."

Howes last week was tabbed by incoming House Republican leaders to chair the House Capital Investment Committee, the panel that focuses on public works projects throughout Minnesota.

"We'll meet with anybody who wants to talk about it," he said of bonding projects. "But there's no guarantees."

Democrat Mark Dayton, who leads Republican Tom Emmer in the gubernatorial race by 8,770 votes pending a recount, has said as one of his first actions he'd advocate for a bonding bill that includes all the items vetoed last session by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

That would include $475,000 in planning and design funds for a new $26 million Headwaters Science Center, $3.67 million for a new biological station and classroom renovation at the University of Minnesota's facility in Itasca State Park and $5.78 million as part of a $35 million request to improve Red Lake Reservation public schools.

Pawlenty vetoed all Bemidji-area projects except one -- $500,000 to connect the Shingobee Trail with the Paul Bunyan Trail at Walker, a project in Howes' district. But more is needed to widen a roadway for bicycle traffic, Howes said, if the Department of Natural Resources is unable to secure funding elsewhere.

"I'd be willing to discuss it," Howes said of Dayton's desire to pass those vetoed projects in a new bonding bill. "But it's not my call, it's leadership's call. ... I'm 95 percent sure that we would not give Dayton a bonding bill before we balance the budget."

Lawmakers face nearly a $6 billion state budget shortfall for the next biennium when they meet in January to begin work on that budget.

Democrats have pushed the need for bonding for public works projects as an economic stimulus, something needed during the current recession.

"There is some truth to that, but it's also a lot exaggerated," Howes said. "It does create work, it does create jobs, but it takes awhile. A lot of these projects we look at we like to say they're shovel or paint brush ready, but realistically a lot of them haven't even got the plans done or permits applied for. So it's not really shovel-ready."

Also, "if bonding bills created jobs and stirred the economy, then why do we need General Motors or General Electric or the Red Wing Shoe Co.? Let's just let government create bonding bills and we'll all be happy," Howes said.

If the Legislature approved $1 billion in bonding, the people of Minnesota will have to pay for it through large debt service payments, he said.

"There are things the state must do," Howes added. "We have to take care of our property, maintain our buildings, and we've got roads and bridges."

Chances of a bonding bill in 2011, a non-bonding year, is 50-50, Howes says, "only because it's my belief that we will not raise taxes, absolutely not." As a result, the governor may not like the Legislature's budget cuts, so Republicans may then hold up on passing a bonding bill.

"Now we're staring each other down," Howes said. "Somebody's going to blink. And I don't think anybody's going to blink."

That may mean only a small bonding bill of $200 million or $250 million to only take care of the state's most pressing infrastructure needs, he said, or spring flood damage.

Howes, who has served on the committee for eight years and the last five as ranking Republican, said he's going to have to be careful of what to recommend from his House 4B district.

"I'm not going to bring forward a whole lot of projects just because I'm the chair," Howes said. "It's more likely I'll have less, because they'll start scrutinizing what I do."

He said the current chairwoman, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, does a good job of separating the two. "She did a very good job of that, she was very careful not to push a whole lot of her projects because she knew that people would look at that."