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WORTHINGTON, Minn. – The manager of this city's dwindling water supply stood on cracked dirt at the bottom of a shrinking, man-made lake outside town and wondered if state lawmakers debating a $1 billion spending plan understand the consequences of another dry spring in Minnesota's thirsty southwestern corner.
"I think it's difficult for folks up in St. Paul to fathom that there's a part of the state that has such a problem," said Worthington utilities chief Scott Hain. The city's only wells, seven of them clustered around Lake Bella, have risen 6 inches in March and April. By this time last year, they'd risen 6 feet.
"In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the glaciers didn't bless us when they receded," said Hain, who wants $69 million to finish a long-delayed pipeline that promises clean and dependable water for a city whose growth is inhibited by the lack of it.
The request is part of the bonding bill that will take center stage when lawmakers resume their session Tuesday. Pipeline backers fear it could get snared in the thorny, political deal making that will be required to get the governor's billion-dollar wish list of public projects approved.
Forty miles west and 10 miles south of Worthington, in sight of the Iowa border, Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, watched an excavating crew move earth for the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System. Right now, there's enough federal money in the project's budget to lay only another half-mile of pipe before work stops — far short of delivering water to Worthington and nearby Luverne.
"We have to have it, and we don't have a reliable source," said Weber, a real estate broker who grew up on a farm nearby and once served as Luverne's mayor. He and other GOP lawmakers from the area are sponsoring a bill that would provide the full $69 million in state bonds to finish the project.
Gov. Mark Dayton supports the request — with a "but." The DFL governor wants a bonding bill with a total price tag of $1.2 billion, touting the hiring jolt it would create around the state. Leaders of the Republican legislative minority want new debt held to $850 million, and have rare leverage because DFLers need a handful of Republican votes to approve bond sales.
At that ceiling, the Worthington project would swallow up more than 8 percent of the state's capital investments budget.
Dayton has said that fulfilling the hefty total cost of finishing the Lewis and Clark project demands the bigger bill. He is counting on support from Weber and other Republicans who have badly needed projects back home.
That puts Weber at the uncomfortable intersection of his party's goals and his district's needs.
"It would be impossible for me to vote against that," Weber said of a $1.2 billion bonding bill with $69 million for Lewis and Clark. "That's the reality of it."
In a session front-loaded with election-year wins for Dayton and DFL legislative majorities — a minimum wage hike, middle class-focused tax relief, the school bullying crackdown — the bonding bill offers Republicans a chance to influence an important issue. Accumulating debt in the state's name requires a three-fifths "supermajority." This year, if every Democrat votes in favor, they would still need support from at least eight Republicans in the House and two in the Senate.
"Republican leadership talks about limiting a bonding bill, when we have the financial resources to do more," said Dayton, who wants the $1.2 billion to repair campus buildings, roads, bridges and to build convention centers in Rochester, Mankato and St. Cloud, as well as help finance projects like the Nicollet Mall redesign and a Bell Museum upgrade in Minneapolis.
The Lewis and Clark project "is exactly the type of project that gets hurt" by staying below $1 billion, Dayton said.
The governor has met with Weber and other Republicans from the area, and recently talked up the project.
"There's a reason we're called Rock County down here. There's just isn't enough water," said Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne. "This isn't to water our lawns or make flowers grow. This is for the basic needs of the community."
Luverne, a town of 4,700, draws water from the Rock River, and uses an expensive filtering process to reduce high levels of iron and manganese. Worthington's situation is even more stark: The city of about 13,000 has spent untold thousands of dollars over the years digging at dozens of potential well sites with no luck. It remains highly dependent on regular precipitation.
Recent years have seen frequent droughts, and Hain said well levels this spring are particularly worrisome.
"We're getting close to historic low levels. When you get beyond that, we don't really know what happens," said Hain, a mild-mannered bureaucrat who wears the worry on his face. He admits to frequent thoughts about worst-case scenarios like "that day someone turns on their tap and nothing comes out."
A Worthington ordinance forbids "irrigation, the washing of driveways, sidewalks, decks and patios and any other wasteful nonessential use of City of Worthington water." Violators can be fined $1,000 and serve up to 90 days in jail.
The city's largest employer and water user, the JBS pork processing plant, is an industry leader in recycling water for multiple uses.
Water that's first used to cool machinery is caught and piped to filtering tanks, then reused to spray out hog pens.
JBS employs about 2,300 people. Brad Hellinga, the plant manager, said the company wants to expand but can't. "Everyone talks about economic growth," he said. "Here's an area that wants to grow, but we're limited by lack of access to water."
The Lewis and Clark project was supposed to be the solution. Conceived in the late 1980s, its goal was to move water from a vast aquifer below the Missouri River to parts of eastern South Dakota, northwestern Iowa and southwestern Minnesota that have struggled with meager water supplies for decades.
Construction began in 2004, with the $565 million in costs split three ways: Eighty percent from the federal government and 10 percent each from state and local governments.
Minnesota and its local governments have contributed about $14 million.
The Lewis and Clark now supplies water to 11 of the 20 communities it was supposed to serve. Not one Minnesota community has seen a drop.
Federal spending on the project dropped dramatically when Republicans lobbied for, and got, a ban on so-called earmarks, money designated for projects in particular congressional districts. Now they supply barely enough to keep pace with inflation and construction has ground to a near halt.
House Democrats have proposed $20 million in state bonding for Lewis and Clark. That's enough to get the pipeline to Luverne, but not Worthington. To finish the project would take the full $69 million.
Dayton has allies in breaking the $1 billion barrier: Rep. Alice Hausman, D-St. Paul, the House bonding chair, calls it an "artificial limit." She points out that lawmakers first approved a $1 billion bonding bill in 1998.
In the final hours of last year's session, the Legislature's four top leaders struck a handshake deal to spend no more than $1 billion total on bonding between 2013 and 2014. At the time, the DFL needed help from Republicans to pass $150 million in bonding, primarily for an ongoing renovation of the Capitol building. That left $850 million to work with this year.
"That's the number, we agreed to it, it would take extraordinary circumstances to change that," said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
He and other Republican leaders say that the right mix of $850 million in projects could net votes from as many as half of the Legislature's Republicans.
Last week, House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said he would consider ditching the $850 million agreement if enough Republicans get on board. Dozens of projects in areas represented by Republicans are vying for bonding dollars.
But GOP House and Senate caucuses are also well-stocked with fiscal conservatives opposed to pushing past the $1 billion ceiling.
They see projects like convention centers and museum renovations as unnecessary amenities, even though Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, has fought hard for the convention center in his city. "The bigger the bill gets, the more difficult it is to get votes on my side of the aisle," said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.
That could put lawmakers like Weber and Schomacker in a pickle.
"I don't have the authority to commit anyone else's vote," Weber said.