Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday proposed that the state borrow close to $1.5 billion for construction to upgrade water-quality systems, roads and bridges, airports and other public works around the state.
The plan Dayton outlined would create an estimated 23,000 direct jobs, with an added goal of spurring future economic activity by upgrading the state’s transportation network. Much of what Dayton proposed was pulled directly from a bonding bill that lawmakers nearly passed at the end of last year’s legislative session, but that fell apart at the last minute over partisan differences.
Released on the second day of this year’s session, Dayton is pressing the GOP-led Legislature to tackle unfinished work from last year. In addition to the bonding bill, that includes tax cuts, and financial assistance to help an estimated 125,000 Minnesotans who face steep health care premium hikes this year.
“I’m proposing a bonding bill that should have been passed nine months ago,” Dayton told reporters during a conference call. “Time is of the essence to make up for that lost bonding year and get these projects ready to go starting this spring and summer with the construction season.”
Myron Frans, commissioner of the state’s budget agency, said that because of low interest rates and the state’s strong credit rating, it makes financial sense to approve a bonding bill this year. He said the state’s debt capacity for general obligation bonds is more than $3 billion.
Legislators have a long tradition of leveraging the state’s borrowing capacity for public works projects otherwise too expensive for taxpayer dollars to take on. But by custom, lawmakers typically pass hefty bonding bills, like what Dayton has proposed, only in even-numbered years.
Republicans now control the House and Senate, making the size of Dayton’s proposal a tough sell.
The GOP chairmen of the committees that review bonding bills, Rep. Dean Urdahl of Acton Township and Sen. David Senjem of Rochester, were cool to Dayton’s bonding price tag.
“Our top responsibility this session is to set a new two-year state budget,” Urdahl said in a statement. “I don’t anticipate a great deal of support for a $1.5 billion bonding bill as the governor has proposed, but I will work in good faith to review projects and proposals that have or may be put forward.”
In an interview, Senjem said it’s likely too much debt for the state to take on and that Republicans are unlikely to approve any borrowing package larger than $1 billion.
A returning legislator, Senjem admitted that Dayton’s framing of the bonding bill as unfinished business might resonate with some lawmakers or the public.
“There’s some legitimacy to getting our work done,” Senjem said. “We did not have a bill last year. ... There’s certainly infrastructure needs in Minnesota.”
Because bonding bills contain public-works projects, the process is often politically charged, with scrutiny of how they are distributed across the state.
Dayton’s office says nearly a third of the projects will benefit the entire state, another 30 percent are in the metro and about 35 percent are projects in rural Minnesota.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, issued a short statement Wednesday in support of Dayton’s plan. He noted that a borrowing bill will require DFL support, since state law requires a supermajority vote of lawmakers in order to issue bonds.
“No matter what, these projects only get more expensive the longer we wait,” Bakk said. “Gov. Dayton’s jobs bill would get Minnesotans working.”
Among projects on the list are a new terminal for an airport in Koochiching County, an upgrade to an I-35W interchange in Minneapolis, and $15 million to expand preschool facilities at public schools. The plan also would fund expansion of Lake Superior ports, maintenance of public university and college buildings, rail-safety improvements, and projects at the Minnesota Zoo, Science Museum of Minnesota and Fort Snelling.
Dayton is also renewing his request for major security improvements and other renovations to Minnesota’s two largest state-run psychiatric facilities, which have both struggled in recent years to contain outbreaks of violence.
As in 2016, Dayton’s proposal includes $70 million for safety improvements at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, which treats about 360 of the state’s most dangerous and complex psychiatric patients.
The money is needed, state officials said, to complete new housing for patients and to make the facility safer by separating more dangerous patients from the rest of the population. In addition, Dayton wants $2.3 million to install more security cameras and make other security improvements at Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center.
The governor requested $27 million to expand the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), which confines about 720 sex offenders at secure treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Under court pressure, the program has moved a record number of offenders to a special program on the outside of MSOP’s St. Peter campus that is designed to reintegrate offenders into the community. However, the buildings that house these offenders are now fully occupied, and state officials say they need to add about 30 more beds to accommodate the population of offenders moving closer toward release.
The new head of the Senate Judiciary Committee said any request for enhancements at MSOP are likely to be reevaluated in light of this week’s federal appeals court decision that the state sex offender program is constitutional. The decision could relieve pressure on the state to move offenders into the community.
“Why would we spend money on more housing for [sex offenders] if we’re not going to release them?” asked Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Star Tribune staff writer Chris Serres contributed to this report.