Republican House members facing tough re-election fights have proposed millions of dollars in public-works projects that are putting them at odds with GOP leaders' efforts to tamp down state spending.
Republicans want money for park trails, playgrounds, wastewater treatment plants, mineral research at the University of Minnesota, flood mitigation and even a new Jolly Green Giant Museum in Blue Earth.
The roughly 250 requests total in excess of $3 billion and are now at the mercy of high-stakes negotiations between DFL and Republican leaders in the closing two weeks of the legislative session.
"I don't make promises" to my community, said Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, who has nearly a dozen bonding requests submitted for projects in his district. "I just do my best to present their wishes."
GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt has refused to unveil the projects he wants included in a $600 million bonding package, less than half of what DFLers are seeking.
DFLers have been stepping up their attacks on Daudt to release a bonding proposal, trying to get him to commit to exactly which water, road and building projects will make the final cut.
Daudt said he is trying to resist DFLers' insistence on spending too much, a message he hopes resonates with voters in a pivotal election year in which all 201 legislative seats are up for grabs.
"Bonding bills become like Christmas morning," said Daudt, of Crown. "Every member puts in every project that they could ever think of. … But it's our job to put that bill together … sift through all of those projects and come up with something that represents a good bonding bill that will take care of those priority projects."
A Monday meeting between Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate and House legislative leaders also failed to bring agreement on bonding projects or a massive transportation proposal, which could be linked in final negotiations.
Fate of transportation bill
The fates of both the transportation and bonding proposals have become increasingly linked in recent weeks, as legislative leaders have said any final bonding bill would likely include a large number of road-and-bridge projects.
The reason, leaders have said, is uncertainty over whether they will be able to resolve deep disagreements over to fund the state's long-term transportation needs.
"I think I have a bigger problem if we don't have a transportation bill," Gunther said of the election fallout for his party if Republicans can't broker a deal on bonding and transportation.
Gunther, a veteran legislator, recalled the 2004 session when the Legislature last failed to approve a bonding bill, calling it "a tragedy for Republicans."
House Republicans lost their majority in the 2006 election, going from having 67 members and a majority to 49 members in the minority.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, suggested that Republicans heed the outcome of that session as he and other DFL leaders called on them to release their bonding proposal.
Trying to 'make a case'
Freshman Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, said he is getting pressure from constituents who are depending on him to pitch their projects. "They've been reaching out through the whole thing," he said. He said he has had several conversations with leaders as they sift through all of the projects that House Republicans have proposed.
How do you squeeze $3 billion worth of proposals into a $600 million bill package?
Backer compared his job to that of a salesman. "You make a case," he said. "Sometimes it takes seven or eight times to close on a sale"
Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, said he is optimistic that legislative leaders will be able to bridge the wide gulfs between their competing transportation and bonding proposals.
"Transportation and bonding are all intertwined," Howe said. "One of them is not gonna happen without the other one."
Gunther is among legislators taking steps to maximize his chances of securing funding for projects in his district, which include two wastewater treatment projects in Sherburn and Jackson. He also has a $300,000 request to design and build the Green Giant Museum in Blue Earth.
Politics in an election year
With the mandatory May 23 adjournment nearing, political recriminations are already flying. When the Senate failed to approve a broader $1.5 billion bonding bill, Dayton's deputy chief of staff, Linden Zakula, circulated a list of projects in various state senators' districts, proclaiming that legislators had voted against projects in their own districts.
State Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, was one of them. (Miller also said he hasn't decided yet if he will run for another term.)
"Right now there's too much of a focus in politics on blaming the other party and trying to get some legislators to take bad votes because it's an election year," Miller said. He noted that a GOP alternative his caucus had proposed included $25 million for Winona State University's Education Village, a project in his district. "My comment to the governor's office, to Senate Democrats and to House Republicans is, 'Enough of the games, and let's get together and work toward a compromise.' "
Miller called competing House and Senate bonding proposals "unrealistic," adding that the House's target of $600 million was too small and that the Senate's $1.5 billion bill was too big.
Daudt said he hopes to meet with House DFLers soon to start winnowing down the list of projects that might be able to pass.