A billion dollars is a lot of money, unless it’s the ceiling on state government bonding authorizations for public building projects. With his opening bid Wednesday on a 2014 bonding bill — a top item on this year’s legislative agenda — Gov. Mark Dayton made a $986 million package seem moderate in size.
For example, the DFL governor said he made higher education projects a priority, accounting for 27 percent of his proposal to the Legislature. Yet of the requests for asset preservation from each of the two public systems — $130 million from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, $100 million from the University of Minnesota — Dayton proposed to authorize just $40 million for each.
Advocates for low-income housing have forged consensus around a proposal for $100 million to increase the supply of affordable, supportive housing and to ease the high cost of homelessness on other public budgets. Dayton’s bid is $50 million.
Missing from the bill is money for the proposed Southwest light-rail line, for a new microbial science building on the university’s St. Paul campus, for a long-planned upgrade at the Oliver Kelley historic farm site, for a replacement for the aging Bell Museum of Natural History and for other project requests totaling $2 billion. Dayton said that 90 percent of the projects left on the cutting-room floor are worthy of state support and that he regretted their omission.
But a $1 billion bill is already on the perimeter of political plausibility, given that the state Constitution requires a 60 percent supermajority in both houses of the Legislature to enact a bonding bill. That translates to 41 votes in the Senate, 81 in the House — or this year, two Republican senators and eight Republican House members joining every member of the DFL majorities.
Within minutes of the release of Dayton’s list, the ranking GOP member of the House Capital Investment Committee, Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood, complained that the governor was proposing “out-of-touch spending.” But the only proposal on Dayton’s list that he singled out for criticism was a new event center at Giants Ridge ski resort in Biwabik, which is owned by a state agency — the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. Dean called it “a snow-making machine and chalet for the governor’s friends.”
If Republican legislators are true to form, they’ll look to shrink Dayton’s bill by cutting regional and municipal projects such as convention and arts centers. With this bill, Dayton again seeks civic center upgrades in Rochester, Mankato and St. Cloud — all projects vetoed in 2010 by his GOP predecessor, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and sought by this governor each year since 2011.
Dayton also seeks state assistance for the renovation of Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, the Children’s Museum and the Palace Theater in St. Paul, a water system upgrade in Luverne, and the NorShor Theatre in Duluth.
We hope Dayton can convince Republicans of the economic value of such projects. He was outspoken on that point Wednesday, referring to lessons acquired from his father, Bruce Dayton, former chair of the board of Dayton Hudson Corp.
“Everything I learned from my father’s knee about business development and civic economic vitality underscores the need for these downtown projects.” A business trip to Detroit with his father decades ago convinced him that unless government invests in downtown amenities, cities can become empty concrete fortresses, he said. “The natural tendency in business is for new development to go to outlying areas, to green-field sites. Unless you give serious attention to downtowns [to keep them there], you start getting blighted areas.”
The merits of that argument are on Dayton’s side. But it’s been our observation that bonding bill decisions don’t always turn on their merits. We hope the governor is as clever in cutting a political deal this spring as he was forceful Wednesday in making the case for a billion-dollar building projects package.