Soon after annual sessions of the Minnesota Legislature began 40 years ago, an informal label was affixed to the even-year lawmaking exercises. They were called “bonding sessions,” to contrast them with the biennial “budget sessions” in odd-numbered years.
That label should be revived in the session that’s set to commence Tuesday. To be sure, bills authorizing the issuance of 20-year state bonds for capital improvements have lately been expected every year. But the Legislature’s approval of a pathetically skimpy bill in 2013 — just enough to keep the Capitol’s four-year renovation on track — should set up this year as an old-fashioned bonding-dominated session. No item on 2014 Capitol agendas is more important to the state’s future than the authorization of a capital-improvements bill crafted to meet the state’s growing infrastructure needs.
Legislators have fallen into some lazy habits in thinking about bonding, and in this election year voters are best positioned to ask why. We have a few suggested questions in mind:
• What’s so magical about $1 billion? The state’s first $1 billion bonding bill was proposed by Gov. Arne Carlson 16 years ago. Today, according to the Minneapolis Fed’s inflation calculator, it would take $1.45 billion to pay for the projects that package contained.
Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed adding nearly $1 billion to the state’s bonding authorization this year, in addition to last year’s meager $176 million measure. But for reasons that appear to have more to do with political jitters than the state’s infrastructure needs, Republican and several key DFL legislators say they won’t go beyond $850 million this year, in order to keep the biennial total at or below $1 billion.
The result of that kind of thinking has been a growing backlog of worthy projects. For example: Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center is back at the Capitol for the eighth year seeking help in upgrading a facility that brings visitors — and dollars — to Minnesota from around the nation. The women’s prison in Shakopee is still waiting for a perimeter security fence, despite eight escapes since 1995. And the deferred-maintenance list on public college campuses keeps growing.
• Why so stingy with HEAPR? That’s “higher education asset preservation and renovation,” and it’s what legislators evidently think can be slashed in every facilities request from the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU). It’s routine for legislators to authorize a third or less of what’s requested for prolonging the serviceable life of campus buildings.
That’s short-term thinking. Campus buildings that go unrepaired eventually must be replaced at higher cost to taxpayers. Meanwhile, outdated higher-ed facilities fail to attract the young brainpower that Minnesota’s economy needs. Higher-education facilities should be about a third of this year’s bonding package, and HEAPR should be at least a third of the total.
• Why the hesitation about civic centers and arts facilities? Through the years, legislators seeking to make political hay with bonding have belittled proposals from the opposite party for “hockey arenas” and “sheet music museums.” Those are cheap-shot references to projects that would be economy-boosting regional assets and, in the case of the proposed civic center expansion in Mankato, would help a state university hockey program maintain its Division I NCAA status.
No project has been more unfairly maligned than the proposed renovation of the Chatfield Center for the Arts. Chatfield was designated Band Town USA 35 years ago, and it has an impressive lending library of music. But the center, which has been in the state bonding queue for nearly a decade, is separate from the library. It’s an example of the kind of homegrown civic spunk Minnesota should support.
• If there’s a surplus, why not pay cash for building projects? That’s not a bad idea. There’s precedent for it. Carlson’s $1 billion bonding proposal in 1998 was converted into half-cash, half-bonds by the Legislature. Using unforeseen surplus cash for one-time building projects is more fiscally prudent than committing it to ongoing spending or permanent tax relief.
One might think that after a decade of recurring deficits, legislators would hesitate to make new permanent commitments with the first real surplus to appear on state balance sheets. But the pressure is on from political friends and foes for ongoing tax cuts and spending hikes. Among legislative leaders, only Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk — whose caucus is not up for re-election until 2016 — is suggesting supplementing this year’s bonding bill with cash. We hope his idea catches on.
• Can Minnesota afford a $1 billion bonding bill this year? By the guidelines about debt burdens that Minnesota uses, yes, it can. The Tax Foundation reports that in 2011, Minnesota ranked 37th among the states in state debt at $2,421 per capita — well behind neighboring Wisconsin, for example, which ranks 18th at $4,013.
When the answer to that question is so clear, another question should follow. Can Minnesota thrive if it’s a laggard among the states in investment in public facilities? We don’t think so, and we hope Minnesotans who agree will convey that sentiment to their legislators early in the new session.