The Minnesota Senate passed a $1 billion public works bill Tuesday that greatly exceeds a version proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who renewed a threat to veto spending he regards as excessive.
The bonding bill passed 52-14. It will await action by the House this week and next on its version of a public works measure.
The Senate bill includes $211 million for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, $139 million for the Department of Natural Resources, $130 million for the Department of Transportation and $111 million for the University of Minnesota.
Much of a nearly four-hour Senate debate over the bill dealt with priorities.
Should the state reject renovation of the Ordway performing arts center in St. Paul and Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis so it can expand a treatment center for sex offenders in Moose Lake?
Should the state cancel construction of the Minnesota Planetarium in Minneapolis and use some of the funding earmarked for it to complete a city park in Sartell?
The debate began shortly after Gov. Tim Pawlenty renewed his threat to veto the entire bonding bill, saying it reflected "misplaced priorities." Pawlenty, who favors a $685 million alternative, chided DFLers who wrote the bill for including arts and convention center projects while rejecting money for the sex offender treatment center.
It was a theme adopted by Republican senators.
"Public safety first and foremost," said Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan. "We don’t have to provide recreation and sports complexes, theaters."
Robling, who supported Pawlenty's proposal to double the size of the sex offender program, asked where residents of the facility would be sent if the program isn't expanded. "Are we prepared to release them to society?"
She wanted to free up $89 million for the sex offender program -- the funding Pawlenty seeks -- by rejecting funds for renovating Orchestra Hall, the Ordway, regional recreation centers, an arts center in Chatfield, and expansions of civic centers and the Como Zoo in St. Paul.
"we know these are nice things to have," she said. "But they are not necessary."
Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, who heads a Senate bonding committee, defended the arts and recreation projects but also agreed to include $1 million for the sex offender program "just to kind of keep it alive."
"We aren't in any way closing the door on any of this," Langseth said. He said Pawlenty's plan to increase criminal penalities for sex offenders "is the right approach" and might reduce the need to spend money on civilly committing them to an indefinite time in a treatment facility after they are released.
Another tradeoff in bonding priorities was proposed by Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, who suggested canceling an approved bonding package for the Minnesota Planetarium in Minneapolis and using $1.3 million of it to complete a city park in Sartell.
"It's taking money from a project that was okayed in the past...and shifting it over to the senator's own district," he said.
Early passage of the bonding bill has been touted by DFLers as a way to quickly create jobs. But Republicans challenged the premise that the public works projects would result in many permanent positions.
A proposal by Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, to require a report on the number and types of jobs created and saved failed to pass.
Others said the bill would add unnecessarily to the debt burden when the state faces a $1.2 billion budget shortfall over the next two years.
"Our state credit card is maxed out," said Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina.
Earlier Tuesday, a state budget official said early passage of a large bonding bill could put additional pressure on the state’s cash flow problems.
But early passage "could, depending on a number of factors, have a debilitating effect on the state’s cash flow," said Katherine Kardell, assistant commissioner for treasury and debt management at Minnesota Management and Budget. That's because bond sales typically occur after the legislative session, and the state might have to borrow money from the state's cash-strapped general fund to get projects off the ground in early spring before new bonds are sold.
However, Management and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson has said that about 46 percent of the governor’s $685 million bonding proposal involve maintenance and preservation projects that could be funded by revenue streams from previous bonding bills, and therefore suitable for fast-tracking. A large portion of the bonding bills in the House and Senate also deal wth preservation projects and presumably would be suitable for fast-tracking.