Senate's $496 million bonding bill spurns Twin Cities

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2012 - 10:00 PM

The GOP-backed $496 million bonding plan has no funds for Nicollet Mall, light rail or St. Paul ballpark.

The biggest items on the Twin Cities' wish lists didn't make it into the Senate's $496 million borrowing bill, released Wednesday.

Released Wednesday, the bill offers no money to renovate Nicollet Mall, nothing for a new ballpark for the St. Paul Saints and no funding for the Southwest corridor light-rail project.

The Senate bonding bill falls midway between Gov. Mark Dayton's $775 million bonding request and the House's scaled-down $280 million proposal, setting the stage for a three-way squabble.

The Senate package emphasizes improvement projects at college campuses, heavily favoring the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities over the University of Minnesota, triggering strong protests from the U. It allocates just $25 million for renovation of the aging State Capitol -- a top priority for Dayton and a project for which the House proposed a separate bonding bill of $200 million.

Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, who also leads the Capital Investment Committee, said he worked to find the "sweet spot" between the governor's wish list and the House's.

"Every year, there are $2.6 billion worth of proposed projects," he said. "If we tried to give everyone what they want, we'd have a $2.6 billion bill, but we try to live within the world of practicality."

The proposal, which could go before the full Senate as early as Friday, deflated St. Paul's dreams of a boutique minor-league ballpark that could spark other development in Lowertown.

"I'm disappointed, of course," said St. Paul Saints co-owner Mike Veeck -- "that's pronounced 'veck,' rhymes with 'wreck,' which I am today," he said. But, Veeck added, "I am the king of the eternally optimistic. In minor-league ball, we're used to setbacks."

By Wednesday afternoon, the St. Paul business community had rallied from the setback and organized a get-together for legislators at a bar near the Capitol, determined to convince them that a ballpark would be a wise investment for the state, both for the good it could do for local businesses, and for baseball fans.

"You can get into our joint for $5 and have a $3 beer. Where else are you going to do that?" Veeck said.

The Senate bill would set aside millions for higher education, roads and bridges, construction projects and natural resources preservation, but some of the projects left out raised eyebrows. The University of Minnesota -- which just asked Steve Sviggum, chief spokesman for the Senate Republican Caucus, to step down from its Board of Regents -- saw its funding shrivel from $78 million in the governor's request to $39 million. At the same time, the Minnesota Colleges and Universities system got a funding bump above even what the governor requested -- $127 million in the Senate plan, compared with Dayton's $112 million.

"The House and Senate funding levels are woefully inadequate to meet critical needs," U President Eric Kaler said in a statement. The university was particularly unhappy that its top priority, $50 million to rebuild the university power plant, was stripped from the Senate bill. "Ultimately, this pattern of underinvestment will cripple the state's most powerful economic engine while shifting even more of the financing burden to students," Kaler said.

Sviggum said the Senate was not aiming to punish the U for forcing his resignation. "No payback, no retribution at all," he said. "It wasn't even on the radar." Sviggum said he would be disappointed if the Senate had taken punitive action "because I'm not worth that."

He did say that because of his stint as a regent, he was well-aware that the U could use its own bonding authority to raise the funds needed to refurbish the power plant.

Three DFL senators involved in an ethics probe into the GOP leadership's response to an affair between the former Senate majority leader and one of her staffers also saw craters knocked in their bonding requests.

DFL Sens. John Harrington and Sandy Pappas of St. Paul and Sen. Kathy Sheran of Mankato found none of their projects in the final bill. All three are involved in the ethics complaint DFLers brought against former Assistant Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel, R-Edina, for his handling of the sex scandal that rocked the Senate late last year.

"I'd like to think that there was no collusion or other malfeasance by the bonding committee," said Harrington, who serves on the ethics subcommittee. He said he'd heard that at one point there was as much as $27 million in the bill for the ballpark project, which earlier had Senjem as a co-sponsor. Pappas brought the complaint against Michel, while Sheran grilled Michel about his actions during the affair between former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and Senate staffer Michael Brodkorb.

Sheran said she was surprised to see the Mankato civic center left out even though St. Cloud and Rochester centers were included. She said she "may have trouble" voting for the overall bill if that project and others in her area of the state arenot funded.

"That is a very bad precedent to set," Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said of the bill. "What caucus is going to be willing to have members serve on the ethics committee?"

Senjem said there was "absolutely no thought of vengeance at all in putting together this bonding bill."

The rest of the bill has a little something for everyone, spread across parties and regions of the state to ensure enough bipartisan support for full passage. Among the goodies: $179 million for higher-education projects, $125 million for state asset preservation; $30.5 million for flood mitigation; $35 million for roads and bridges, and even $7 million for the dolphin tank at the Minnesota Zoo.

And there was the underdog lobbying triumph of the year. In a session where projects were getting slashed left and right, Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood successfully lobbied for money to save one of the city's last public pools.

"It was the best example of democracy at work. We asked all these representatives to sit down and talk with us -- and they did!" said Hannah Lieder, board president of Minneapolis Swims. "It's just a miracle."

Staff writer Rachel Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049

  • BONDING SQUABBLE

    $775 MILLION

    Gov. Mark Dayton's bonding plan would fund transit projects, State Capitol renovations and building at the U.

    $496 MILLION

    Senate plan eliminates Nicollet Mall improvements and a Saints ballpark, but increases funding for MNSCU projects.

    $280 MILLION

    House borrowing plans include a separate $200 million bonding bill plan for repairs to the Capitol.

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