The Great Culling Process has begun as legislators, mindful that labor is cheap now, decide which projects should get state help.
Should the state borrow $6 million to build protective dikes in a Red River Valley community that one geologist says should never have been developed in the first place? ¶ Should a music lending library in southeastern Minnesota get help two years after Gov. Tim Pawlenty singled out an earlier request as wasteful spending? ¶ What about installing snow-making equipment for cross-country skiing in Ramsey County?
Even more than most years, supporters of bigger borrowing say a large bonding bill when the Legislature convenes early next year would take advantage of cheap labor and credit, tackle delayed projects and put thousands of Minnesotans back to work.
Legislators won't settle on a final mix for months, but they've already started touring the state to cull the list of potential projects.
The full wish list totals nearly $2.7 billion -- far more than anyone expects to spend. DFLers are aiming closer to $1 billion, with projects targeted to job revival.
That will run headlong into Pawlenty, a Republican governor who appears intent on holding the line closer to $725 million, as he stresses his fiscal conservatism nationally. Other conservatives say the state can't afford any new borrowing because of its looming budget deficit.
The choices legislators make for the 2010 bonding bill will depend on far more than the projects themselves. Geography, political affiliation, horse-trading and a budget deficit can all come into play. One legislator's vital project is another's dubious priority.
The biggest requests come from the state's public colleges and universities, who want $588 million to expand and renovate. There are bids to spend $250 million on natural resources and flood control, and nearly $200 million on transit, roads and bridges.
Consider the flood-control project in Oakport Township near Moorhead, where about 400 houses occupy a low area hit hard by Red River flooding.
Homeowners this year got $12 million to complete a dike, but later "came back and said, 'We need more money,'" said Kent Lokkesmoe, director of the waters division for the Department of Natural Resources.
Donald Schwert, distinguished professor of geology at North Dakota State University, said the community's predicament is self-inflicted.
"What we're seeing is that Minnesota and federal taxpayers are contributing a lot of money into an area that should never have been developed," Schwert said. "This is an area that historically has been prone to flooding."
Helping one community
But Greg Anderson, chairman of Oakport Township, said he had no inkling flooding would be serious when he built in 1993.
"If I'd a known ... I would have built 40 miles east of here, on a hill," said Anderson, who hopes the dike will hold down flood insurance for homeowners.
They're asking for $6 million to finish the project -- which will total $24 million -- and some legislators are uneasy.
"This is all the taxpayers in the state helping one community avoid damage," said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, chair of the House committee evaluating bonding proposals. "They have to say to taxpayers, 'Here's why we think you should help us to continue to stay where we are.'"
But that community lies in the district of Hausman's Senate counterpart, DFLer Keith Langseth, of Glyndon, who chairs the Senate bonding committee. Langseth has pushed the dike project for years, and Pawlenty signed off on earlier stages of it.
Seeing for themselves
On a crisp morning last week, legislators climbed out of a chartered bus and hiked to the site where the old Lowry Avenue Bridge once crossed the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Greeting them was Jim Grube, transportation director for Hennepin County, who explained why the county needs $10 million from the state to help replace what will be an $80 million bridge.
Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, wondered later whether an emphasis on looks drove up the price tag. "There is an aesthetic quality that is expected by the community, but at what point does money play into it?" he asked.
Legislators also toured Orchestra Hall and nearby Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis to see whether it's worth a $22 million renovation and listened to St. Paul's pitch for $25 million to build a new home for its minor league baseball team, the Saints.
Legislators reviewed a proposal to spend $11 million to refurbish the gorilla exhibit at Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, a project in Hausman's home turf that Pawlenty vetoed in 2008.
Up for re-review: the Chatfield Brass Band Music Lending Library that Pawlenty last year cited as an example of "misplaced priorities."
Criticism of the $400,000 project stung Chatfield residents, who consider the music library a local point of pride.
Now the Chatfield Public Schools wants $2.2 million to build an auditorium and community center that could also house the music library.
Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, likes the project, which is near his district and would provide an arts center for the region.
"You're obviously biased for your own projects, or ones in your area," Senjem said. "It's just, how does it get into the bill, is there enough political muscle to make that happen?"
One borrowing hawk, former Rep. Phil Krinkie, urges legislators and Pawlenty to consider opposing any bonding bill in 2010. Krinkie says the state can't afford to increase its debt payments when it faces a billion-dollar deficit.
But Tom Hanson, state management and budget commissioner, said Pawlenty favors borrowing about $725 million. He said he is working to loosen guidelines that would allow more borrowing at a time of reduced state revenues.
Push the borrowing limit?
Still, Langseth sees Pawlenty taking a tough stance on the bonding bill to woo conservatives as he explores a run for president. Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor supports cutting spending and taxes to stimulate the economy.
DFLers say the climate is right to push the limit a bit on borrowing.
"Why not do it now when we can do it cheaper, when we can put people to work who are out of work?" Langseth asked.
Senjem, his fondness for the Chatfield project aside, frowns on borrowing to create jobs.
"Should state government be relied upon to be the state's job producer?" he asked. "I think that is a dangerous habit to get into."
Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210