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Pawlenty axes all Bemidji projects in bonding bill

Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Monday exercised his line-item veto to cut out all Bemidji area projects from the $1 billion Legislature-approved public works bill.

Among the projects red-lined were the Headwaters Science Center, the Paul Bunyan Trail bridge and Red Lake schools improvements.

"As usual, I have been left to reduce spending within the bill to an affordable level," the Republican governor said in his veto letter. "The DFL-controlled Legislature seems incapable of prioritizing projects or simply saying no. So I have done it for you."

Pawlenty's red pen hit every Bemidji area project that was in the bonding bill approved Friday by the Legislature. Only left standing for Bemidji were funds for roof repairs and the like at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities campuses.

"Puzzling is the nicest word I can think of to use for it," Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, said in a telephone interview Monday. "If you look at the kinds of things he did to rural Minnesota ... he makes it very hard for us to remain competitive in our area.

"If we can't stand up as a geographic, across-party-lines group, and speak out for things that are important to our area in rural Minnesota, then we're going to see this kind of trend continue," Olson said, "where we have a redistribution of our tax dollars based on both wealth and geography."

Pawlenty cut the $999.9 million bill down to $686 million - nearly even to his original $685 million bill and way below the $725 million compromise figure he threw out. It amounts to $313 million in excised projects.

Cut from the bill was $475,000 in planning and design funds for the Headwaters Science Center, which seeks a new $26 million facility near the Mississippi River and the Beltrami History Center.

"The bill contains too many appropriations for specific local projects, which are funded while some statewide priority needs are disregarded," Pawlenty said in his veto letter.

"I hope people don't get discouraged from continuing to work on these projects because they are important," Olson said. "This is only one time in one year with one governor. It doesn't mean we can't accomplish these things."

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said in a statement that he was "very disappointed" that the governor red-lined the Headwaters Science Center. "When he labeled this a local project, he clearly didn't understand the well-documented broad regional significance of this center and its importance to children and education."

Olson agreed.

"The planning money would have definitely been very helpful in moving this project forward," Olson said. "But that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of things we can do even without that money."

She said she was personally interested in seeing that project come to reality, regardless of the fall election. "There's some really exiting possibilities for that facility and for tying it into our classrooms, directly or online. ... There's a lot more emphasis now on clean water research."

HSC Executive Director Laddie Elwell did not return a call seeking comment. "I want her to know we're not giving up on this," Olson said.

Line-item vetoed from University of Minnesota projects was $6.67 million to construct an American Indian Learning Resource Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and $3.67 million to construct a new biological station and renovate a classroom at the U of M's facility at Itasca State Park.

"The governor has once again ignored the concerns of District 2B residents by cutting valuable local projects," Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, said Monday, adding that Pawlenty also cut $5.78 million in Red Lake schools improvements. "These would have been beneficial projects to our community and to the entire state of Minnesota."

The Itasca Park station "would have turned the seasonal station into a year-round facility," she said. "Full-time jobs would have been created during and after the construction and the local economy would have been boosted by researchers visiting the station."

Pawlenty also vetoed $5.78 million to the Red Lake School District for a capital loan to design, construct, furnish and equip the renovation of existing and construction of new facilities.

"The cost of funding this project is $35,043,000," Pawlenty said in his veto letter. "Since the level of funding has not been accomplished in this bill, the project should be postponed."

Pawlenty has done the same in previous bonding bills, when the Legislature-approved funding for Red Lake wasn't as much as the school district requested. He vetoed $16 million in 2008 for the same reason.

The smaller amount came as "knowing of tight budget concerns and Pawlenty's desire for a smaller bill, the Legislature trimmed down the request to $5.8 million," Sailer said.

"I find it interesting that the governor says he vetoed the project because it wasn't fully funded," Sailer said. "The Legislature has, on occasion, given him the chance to fund the renovation of the schools facilities. When we gave him a chance to do in small increments, he rejected that too."

Pawlenty vetoed $21.4 million for state trail acquisition and development, which includes $1.8 million for the Paul Bunyan Trail bridge proposed over Highway 197 at the south shore of Lake Bemidji.

"While some of these are worthy projects, this level of funding is not affordable at this time," Pawlenty wrote. "... the language used in this section invited an 'all or nothing' approach to vetoes."

Bemidji City Manager John Chattin, however, doesn't believe the city is at wit's end yet on the bridge which would connect the Paul Bunyan Trail from Brainerd to that part of the trail north of Highway 197.

"We will continue to pursue (federal) stimulus funding for the project and we also have $800,000 in Oberstar's transportation bill for the bridge, should that be passed at some point," Chattin said, referring to U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Jim Oberstar's, DFL-8th District, five-year transportation appropriations bill.

"This is a well-recognized public safety issue for our community, but I think we have seen before that public safety is not a priority for this governor," Persell said.

Also line-item vetoed was $4.85 million for nine campuses in the MnSCU system, including Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College, for classroom renovations in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM programming.

The only remaining funds for Bemidji are those doled out system wide by MnSCU for emergency repairs or roof replacements. The bill has $52 million in so-called HEAPR funds to be shared among all MnSCU campuses.