Senate DFLers on Monday proposed borrowing nearly $1.5 billion to pay for more than 200 capital improvement projects, saying that low interest rates make it wise to invest in critical infrastructure needs around Minnesota.
The Senate bonding proposal would fund projects at Minnesota colleges and universities, upgrade some roads and bridges, water treatment facilities and improvements to the state's public safety and parks programs. If approved, it would create an estimated 40,000 jobs, Senate DFLers said.
"This is not a Cadillac bonding bill, it's a Ford or a Chevy bonding bill," said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, and chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee. "It's very basic."
The unveiling of now two bonding proposals — earlier by Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate DFLers — sets up a clash with House Republicans who have yet to present their much smaller, $600 million bonding plan.
House Republicans immediately decried the amount the state would need to borrow, saying they are focused on transportation and tax cuts.
"House Republicans will prioritize how we allocate existing tax dollars — for transportation and tax relief — before turning to borrowing," said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, and chairman of the House Capital Investment Committee. "I have concerns that the Senate DFL package far exceeds the amount Minnesotans have deemed financially reasonable in past bienniums."
The politics of approving a bonding bill, which requires a three-fifths majority to pass, became more complicated last week.
Seven DFL senators threatened to withhold their votes for a bonding bill unless legislative leaders provide $135 million in state funding for the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit project, which would connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
Torkelson said he was "disappointed to hear recent news that Democrat Senators will block a bonding bill without money for Southwest Light Rail."
Stumpf provided an overview of the Senate measure on Monday in a news conference, where he highlighted projects he said were important to fund this year, including $70 million for security upgrades at the St. Peter Hospital and $14.5 million for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.
The outgoing chairman of the Senate bonding committee said that about a third of the bonding proposal would pay for transportation projects, nodding to the deep disagreement that House Republicans and DFL leaders have on a comprehensive package for roads and bridges.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, on Monday said he has no intention of abandoning his position that legislators should approve a gas tax to pay for transportation upgrades. Having a dedicated source of funding, Bakk said, would prevent transportation needs from competing for general fund dollars alongside education and human services in the future. House Republicans contend that the state should use some of the existing $900 million surplus rather than approve a tax hike that they say Minnesotans cannot afford.
"Resolving the issue of transportation is very difficult," Bakk said. "Maybe this is the best we can do," adding that he expects the bill will come up for a floor vote in the Senate Thursday.
About 18 percent of what Senate DFLers proposed would pay for projects for education and human services, including $14 million for a school building in Red Lake and $17 million for a social services building at Red Lake Indian Reservation.
Another 13 percent would pay for environmental protection, including $20 million for state parks and trails. Eleven percent would pay for public safety programs, including $33 million for a state emergency operations center in Arden Hills. Another 10 percent would go for asset protection.
Among major projects included in the bill are $160 million for the University of Minnesota system, $117 million for human services, and $127 million for employment and economic development. Senate DFL leaders in recent weeks have called on House Republicans to unveil their bonding proposal, which GOP leaders have so far declined to do. By law, bonding bills have to originate in the House.