A New Legislature: GOP Against Big Bonding Bill, But Leaves Door Open

Gov.-elect Mark Dayton wants the state to borrow $1 billion for public works construction projects around the state.

He should not get his heart set on it.

“We are so diametrically opposed,” said Rep. Larry Howes, House chairman of the committee that would send projects to Democrat Dayton. “Someone has to give.”

And the Walker Republican, not always in lockstep with his party leaders, indicated that he is not ready to give.

“We will say, obviously, we are not going to have a bonding bill,” Howes said of a public works bill financed by the state selling bonds. But that could change in negotiations with Dayton, he added.

Even while opposing a bonding bill, Howes said that he will have an idea about potential public works projects. “You always want to have something ready to go,” he said.

Republican leaders, including Howes, have been adamant in their opposition to borrowing money in 2011 for projects other than disaster recovery.

The man who was ousted as Senate bonding chairman when Republicans took control of the Legislature does not sound hopeful a bonding bill is forthcoming.

“That party spent the whole campaign belittling everything we did in the boding bill, so I suppose it is a little hard for them to turn around and say they need a bonding bill,” Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said.

But, he added, with low interest rates and plenty of workers looking for jobs, this is a good time to launch construction projects.

Langseth said he hopes newly empowered Republicans do like GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty did when he took office in 2003. He said at first Pawlenty would not accept a bonding bill, but a week before the legislative session ended Republicans went into Langseth’s office and said they wanted one.

Howes and Langseth agree that if a bonding bill does come about, it is likely an agreement will not surface until near the session’s May end.

Langseth predicted that Dayton will propose a bill of about $700 million.

Howes said he has not heard from areas that may want disaster funds, such as Wadena. During a fall special legislative session, lawmakers sent $6.6 million to the tornado-ravaged community. But Wadena officials had wanted more than $20 million to rebuild several community facilities a June tornado destroyed.

Howes said he also has not heard from communities affected by 2010 flooding asking for more aid.

The 12-year House veteran poked a hole in the hopes of communities around Minnesota that might count on state money to build hockey arenas, civic center and the like.

“If (House) leadership allows me, I am not going to do anything local,” Howes said.

Just what is “local” may not be clear cut.

One trouble with funding local projects, he said, is balancing funds for various communities.

When Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater got millions of dollars, he said, “I have the Woodtick Theater. Why doesn’t it get $400,000?”

One local project Howes could accept is the plan to put a Mayo Clinic facility at Mall of America in Bloomington. Some street and utility work would be needed and Howes could see some state funding for that because a $220 million building project would add to state taxes.

Even on state projects, Howes said he will take a critical look at each proposal.

For instance, some communities want funds to build veterans’ homes. “Is there money to operate a vets’ home?” he said will be his first question.

Howes said it is doubtful a new veterans’ home will be built soon, given the state’s $6.2 billion budget deficit.

Even with opposition to local projects and being down on a 2011 bonding bill, Howes said that projects such as theaters, trails and a Mall of America expansion have merit.

“It makes people feel good,” he said. “You draw people into the state. There is a mental health benefit.”