By Mike Kaszuba and Baird Helgeson
With another showdown with Gov. Tim Pawlenty looming -- this time over a $1 billion bonding bill -- DFL leaders were critical Monday of the governor, saying he was absent as they worked through the weekend to finalize legislation that they said would create at least 21,000 jobs in Minnesota.
In a direct challenge to the Republican governor, House and Senate conferees did not include $89 million for an expansion of the controversial Moose Lake treatment center for sex offenders. Pawlenty had earlier hinted that he might veto this year's entire state bonding bill if the proposal were not included, and a spokesman for the governor said Monday that was still a possibility.
But with Pawlenty in Washington, D.C. late last week to attend a political conference for conservatives and appear Sunday on Meet The Press -- more signs that he might be considering a presidential campaign -- DFL conference committee leaders vented their frustration with the governor as they finalized a $999.9 million bonding bill.
"For one thing, where is he? Where is he?," asked Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, the chief Senate legislator on the bonding bill. "We were here.
"I've served with six governors -- five of them knew what negotiation was all about, and democracy was all about. This one, it's his deal or no deal," said Langseth.
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, the chief House legislator on the bonding bill agreed and criticized Pawlenty's negotiating style over the Moose Lake provision. "What did he make clear? He has promised nothing," she said. "He never came to us and said, 'If you put this in, I will support this bill."
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor, who will be Washington until Tuesday, was withholding judgment on whether to line item veto or simply veto the entire bonding bill. After his initial comments Monday, McClung issued a clarifying statement that stressed that signing the bill was not an option the governor was considering.
"We think the voters of Minnesota are going to remember that the Democrats were prioritizing things like the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and hockey rinks and trails [for funding in the bill] over locking up sex offenders," McClung said.
Both the House and Senate are expected to debate, and likely pass, the bonding bill conference committee report this evening. The bill would then go to Pawlenty, who could line item veto parts of the massive bill or simply veto the entire legislation.
DFL leaders said the bill's passage would mean many major infrastructure projects -- creating thousands of jobs -- could begin almost immediately.
Hausman and Langseth said they did not include the $89 million for Moose Lake in the bonding bill because the overall program, which is growing rapidly, needed significant study. "We're going to do something, probably this [legislative] session, but if not then next session," said Langseth, who said money for the expansion could be included in other legislation later this session.
The state's sex offender program has become a major political issue, with Pawlenty wanting the program expanded and DFLers and some Republicans questioning the spiraling costs. Under the program, sex offenders are sent to Moose Lake under a civil commitment after serving their prison sentences, and in almost all cases have stayed there indefinitely.
Minnesota has one of the highest rates of civil commitments of sex offenders nationally. "Why is it that when we're already at the top we need to double?" asked Langseth. "We're way out of synch with the rest of the country."