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.”