On Tuesday, a group of state senators will climb aboard a motor coach parked outside the State Office Building that will carry them to the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Rush City.
Not as inmates-to-be. The lawmakers are members of the Senate’s Capital Investment Committee, which is embarking on a series of three-day tours of the entire state over the coming weeks. It’s a kind of show-and-tell opportunity for officials at dozens of higher education campuses, cultural and historical sites, and assorted state facilities and sites who are vying for a chunk of what could be close to $1 billion in state bonds for construction projects that will be passed out in next year’s legislative session.
“I think one of the essential parts of putting a bonding bill together really involves looking at projects in real life,” said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, chairman of Senate Capital Investment.
Between Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon, senators and a small group of staff will make more than a dozen stops, including such tourist favorites as Split Rock Lighthouse, the International Wolf Center, and Duluth’s Glensheen Mansion — where they can even join in an “optional bonfire” in the evening. At Lake Vermilion State Park, they’ll take a boat ride.
The state has compiled nearly $4 billion in bonding requests for new projects and upkeep of existing state assets. The House and Senate committees typically tour the state every two years, visiting both applicants for new dollars, as well as past recipients.
“It’s a big state with lots of stuff in it,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, chairman of House Capital Investment. “I do think it’s beneficial to put eyeballs on the projects. It’s a lot different from a PowerPoint presentation.”
That committee’s members have also been busing around the state in recent weeks, with stops last Thursday at the Lanesboro Dam, Northern Links Trail in Faribault and the Minnesota Zoo.
Torkelson estimated each three-day swing costs about $6,000 to $7,000 in taxpayer money. In the Senate, figures for the exact cost of specific trips were not readily available; in all, the Senate Rules Committee approved a travel budget for senators and staffers of $150,000 for the current two-year budget cycle.
Lawmakers can get reimbursed for hotel bills up to $100 a night, but must pay any additional costs. They are eligible for a per diem allowance when they’re on a tour, which is $66 for representatives and $86 for senators. Lawmakers are expected to cover their own meal costs on the trips with money from the per diem, although Stumpf said meals often are provided at tour sites.
The respective House and Senate Capital Investment committees take the tours separately, even though they mostly end up visiting the same places.
Torkelson said there was talk of merging the trips, but it proved too logistically difficult. Moving a group of elected officials in efficient manner is a challenge, he said.
“There’s a little bit of cat herding going on,” Torkelson said.