Bemidji events center included in House-approved bonding bill
ST. PAUL (AP) - Things got a bit hairy Thursday as the Minnesota House approved a $1 billion borrowing plan after failed attempts to ax money for a Como Zoo gorilla exhibit, an urban light rail line and a Duluth convention center upgrade. The bil...
ST. PAUL (AP) - Things got a bit hairy Thursday as the Minnesota House approved a $1 billion borrowing plan after failed attempts to ax money for a Como Zoo gorilla exhibit, an urban light rail line and a Duluth convention center upgrade. The bill includes $20 million for construction of the Bemidji regional events center.
The bill's passage sets the stage for final negotiations among the House, Senate and GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration on a compromise plan for financing public works projects. It contains money for new construction and maintenance at college campuses, prisons, state parks, wastewater treatment centers and other public properties.
The 99-34 House vote followed a debate that was alternately pithy and prickly.
Republicans House members held up the gorilla exhibit as an example of misplaced priorities, while Democrats pointed to Pawlenty's past support of zoo projects as integral to Minnesota's quality of life. Representatives hauled out bananas, fluffy pigs and pictures of Pawlenty petting a dolphin to make their cases.
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, led the charge to strip the bill of $11 million for renovation of the St. Paul zoo's gorilla and polar bear exhibits. He repeatedly tried and narrowly failed to redirect the zoo money to school construction, votes that will undoubtedly resurface on political brochures during this fall's election.
"We are worried about the average family in Minnesota," Seifert said. "There are other people worried about the average primate."
Rep. Alice Hausman, the chief sponsor of the bill, fought fiercely to protect the Como Zoo project, noting that 1.7 million people visit the park annually on family outings and school field trips.
"You are making this about animals. This is about kids," she scolded.
All told, the bill would give a green light to more than $1 billion in projects. The bulk -- $960 million -- is paid for through state-incurred debt and most of the rest comes from local matches.
Minnesota's long-standing practice is to limit principal and interest costs to 3 percent of the state's general fund spending. The bills that passed the House and Senate threaten to exceed that cap, depending on the timetable for selling the bonds.
In a letter to lawmakers Thursday, Pawlenty avoided an explicit veto threat, but he urged lawmakers to whittle the bill down to $825 million.
"I am very concerned that impasse will be reached if we do not agree to abide by the cap," he said. "The generous amount allowed by the cap should be more than sufficient to create a compromise bill that is also fiscally responsible."
The bill authorizes items as small as $135,000 to buy markers for unmarked graves of people who died while in state hospitals or regional treatment centers. On the high end is $70 million toward a light rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, highlighted the bill's emphasis on repairing aging water treatment centers, alleviating crowded college classrooms and furthering major industrial projects in parts of the state that need a lift. And she stressed that it would result in construction jobs that could help Minnesota out of an economic slump.
"We looked for projects that were ready to go," she said. "We want those dollars out there employing people immediately."
But Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, said lawmakers need to be mindful that state taxpayers will ultimately pick up the tab. He lobbied to limit the bill to essential government projects such as public safety centers and road repairs.
"This is about necessities of living versus luxuries," Emmer said. "We're pleading with you, please do not use Minnesotans' food money to buy your beer."