Politicians and educators puffed in mutual pride and congratulation last Wednesday as St. Cloud State University dedicated its new Integrated Science and Engineering Laboratory Facility, better known by its acronym, ISELF.
None of them, though, wore a smile bigger than did Patti Gartland, president of the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation, the region’s privately financed force for economic development.
“This building attracts the caliber of student we need and creates an opportunity for us to keep those students here when they’ve graduated,” Gartland said. “It’s also a resource for the business community, for meeting their needs within their operations. It gives them not only the trained talent that they need, but helps them do the work they need to do — and do it here.”
Education plus business collaboration — that’s the idea behind ISELF. Manufacturing is on the rebound in central Minnesota, and taxpayer-fueled changes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at St. Cloud State deserve no small share of the credit.
With its clean room, robotics lab, imaging center (where we learned to spell “X-ray diffractometer”) and business-friendly consultation space, ISELF will be the venue to which area manufacturers bring their processing problems and meet with students and faculty to find solutions. That effort won’t be an academic sidelight but a requirement for graduation.
Brad Goskowicz, CEO of Microbiologics, which has 85 employees in St. Cloud, joined several hundred celebrants at the dedication. In the past six years, his company has added 35 jobs, filling the bulk of them with graduates of St. Cloud State.
“With this new building, we’re going to do more projects here,” Goskowicz said. “They have facilities and talent we don’t have. … I’m recruiting a molecular biologist that we need for our product line growth, a person out of the East Coast. Part of the reason that person is coming is he knows he’ll have this facility to collaborate with students and professors. It’s huge for us.”
These business testimonials almost — but not quite — erase from memory the hard feelings of 2010, when business-backed Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed what was then $42.3 million for ISELF, as the conservative wing of the GOP clamored for big reductions in state borrowing for the sake of smaller government.
Fortunately, ISELF was revived one year later, in the bonding bill that was part of a shutdown-ending deal between DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and a then-Republican-controlled Legislature. At last week’s dedication ceremony, Pawlenty was praised as the governor who, along with a DFL-controlled Legislature, approved planning money for the project in 2008. His 2010 veto went unmentioned.
That nicety was a reflection of political reality: State-funded building projects require bipartisan backing. The constitution’s three-fifths supermajority requirement for approval of long-term borrowing, plus Minnesota’s propensity for divided government, mean that in most years, a bonding bill won’t pass without votes from both sides of the partisan aisle.
A failure to secure bipartisan support for an $800 million bonding bill led to its collapse on the House floor in the 2013 session’s waning days. Only a $156 million remnant could be revived, enough to keep a four-year State Capitol renovation moving forward and entice a few minority Republicans with small projects in their districts.
That near-failure ought not be repeated in 2014. ISELF is finally done, but other projects that would boost the local and state economies for years to come remain on the Legislature’s to-do list. Higher-education facilities should be the heart of the 2014 bonding bill. But many state projects — water treatment, flood control, convention facilities, and parks and trails, to name a few — function as magnets for the private investment and jobs that will keep Minnesota strong.
Eight past and present legislators — five Republicans, three DFLers — listened last week as St. Cloud State President Earl Potter III noted “the importance of the kind of unified support from state leadership that strengthens communities and allows them to achieve their goals.” We hope those legislators and their peers understand that bipartisan unity on bonding is more than important. It’s essential.