Passing an ordinary bill took extraordinary bipartisan effort.
The Legislature's limelight has fallen almost exclusively this week on the Vikings stadium bill. Maybe that distraction helped dislodge a stalled $496 million building projects bill and send it to Gov. Mark Dayton, who is considered certain to sign it.
We're not too diverted to notice and applaud. Our cheers aren't so much for the bonding bill's content, which ranks as routine in both size and scope. It provides important but unremarkable funding for infrastructure basics -- wastewater treatment, flood control, bridge repair, and new roofs, boilers, floors and windows in aging public buildings.
Rather, we're pleased to see this ordinary bonding bill emerge at all from the partisan minefield that confronted it this year. It is the product of extraordinary lawmaking, particularly by four legislators -- GOP Sen. David Senjem and Rep. Larry Howes, and DFL Sen. Keith Langseth and Rep. Alice Hausman. Without their cool-headed, persistent and persuasive leadership, this even-year "bonding session" might have left its main mission unaccomplished.
GOP leaders in both the House and Senate can also take a bow. They allowed a bill to come to the floor that roughly half of the members of their majority caucuses -- the insurgent Tea Party half -- did not support. That decision was spurred by the 60 percent supermajority needed to pass a bonding bill. But it also was selfless and somewhat risky. It put the state's best interests ahead of the leaders' standing among their caucus-mates.
In both chambers, the bill passed with more minority DFL than majority Republican votes -- a rare circumstance for any bill, let alone a major one in an election year. It's all the more exceptional because the bill is plainly not of DFL design. The version recommended by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton was much larger -- $775 million, plus separate funding for much-needed renovation of the State Capitol, priced by expert consultants at $240 million.
DFL legislators lamented the final product's omission of a number of their favored projects. Absent from the bill are convention centers in Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato, Southwest Corridor light-rail transit, Nicollet Mall rebuilding, a start on a new ballpark for the St. Paul Saints and much more.
Yet 87 of the Legislature's 91 DFLers judged the bill an acceptable bipartisan compromise and voted yes. Fifty-one of 109 Republicans couldn't bring themselves to the same conclusion. They preferred the role of de facto minority to shouldering the responsibility of a governing majority.
In keeping with the spirit the bill's backers exhibited, we won't long dwell on its many omissions. Suffice to say that they are serious enough to warrant putting another major bonding bill on the next Legislature's agenda -- not in 2014, the "bonding session," but in 2013.
In fact, the state's aging infrastructure and modern construction and maintenance practices may be rendering obsolete the notion that a major bonding bill should be enacted only in even-numbered years. Steady, incremental investment is warranted to keep pace with the building needs of a state with more than 5 million residents.
A major renewal of the State Capitol belongs at the top of the next bonding agenda. The 2012 bill includes only a $44 million downpayment on the long-overdue renewal of Cass Gilbert's 1905 masterpiece. That amount might be enough to stabilize the crumbling Georgia marble dome. But it won't begin to tackle the renewal of the building's deteriorating structural systems and interior.
That work cannot be done without a much larger commitment of state dollars than this year's stadium-distracted legislators were willing to make. The Capitol deserves to become the 2013 equivalent of this year's stadium bill -- a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something enduring and grand in the service of the public good.
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