Bonding bill heads toward vote, possible veto
ST. PAUL - Minnesota's Democratic-led Legislature is ready to send Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty a public works funding bill he doesn't like, setting the stage for a possible veto and a new attempt to fund projects ranging from college buildings to passenger rail lines.
Legislative leaders plan votes in the full House and Senate today on borrowing $925 million for state construction projects, $100 million more than Pawlenty wants. When cash is figured in, the bill would cost more than $1 billion.
"This bill is fiscally irresponsible and has misguided priorities," Pawlenty said in a statement released Tuesday night after a House-Senate conference committee unanimously approved the measure.
The governor will not say whether he would veto the entire bill or just veto projects he does not like.
"Their inability to say no led to a seriously bloated laundry list," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty's chief complaints are that the bill funds local projects - such as a Bemidji events center and a Moorhead volleyball center - but not some veterans' hospital needs he recommends.
"That would be a reflection of some pretty deeply misplaced priorities," he said.
After a House-Senate conference committee gave its blessing to the bonding bill Tuesday evening, the chief legislative negotiators said they grew tired waiting for Pawlenty to tell them what projects he can and cannot support, so opted to go ahead and send him their bill.
Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, the Senate's chief negotiator, said: "It's very upsetting to me. He has to decide at some point."
That point could be late this week or early next week.
Once the House and Senate deliver the bill to Pawlenty, likely to be Thursday, he has three days to sign or veto it.
Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson, the administration's chief negotiator, said Pawlenty and lawmakers "just disagree" on how much to borrow to finance public works projects.
The House's top finance lawmaker said Pawlenty tells groups he supports their projects, but tells lawmakers he does not.
"If we were to add up all the projects he said he supported, it probably would be $3 billion," Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, said.
Pawlenty told reporters he has told lawmakers not to spend too much and that he may not simply veto some projects to lower the bill's price.
"We've repeatedly warned them not to assume that and that the whole bill could be vetoed on the theory that we're not going to clean up their bill for them," he said.
Much of the conference committee discussion Tuesday night centered on a proposed new state park along northeastern Minnesota's Lake Vermilion. The committee bill contains no money for the park, one of Pawlenty's pet projects, because a price to buy the land has not been negotiated.
Negotiators missed a March 15 deadline for deciding on a sales price, but it has been extended to near the Legislature's May 19 adjournment date.
Pawlenty said a Department of Natural Resources appraisal estimated the land value at $13 million or $14 million, but its owner, US Steel, pegged its value at around $20 million.
Lobbyists and others were going through the 119-page bill Tuesday night to see if their projects made the cut. In many cases, projects remained in the bill, but with less money than versions passed earlier by the House and Senate.
The governor called on Langseth, in particular, to help narrow the scope of a bonding bill.
"Sen. Langseth, I have a lot of respect for, but he has a very difficult time telling anybody no," Pawlenty said. "He loves to fund everybody's projects and then say, 'Oh, that dastardly governor wouldn't let you have your project.'"
"He wants to have me do the heavy lifting for him, and as a senior statesman for the state of Minnesota we need him to step up to the plate and help say no so that we have a responsible bill."
But Langseth - and his House counterpart, Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul - practically dared Pawlenty to veto specific projects.
"Using the line item veto is a legitimate tool that he has," Hausman said.
The bill is heavy on college and university projects. The University of Minnesota campuses would receive $131 million, while Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system facilities would get $208 million from the state.
The bill contains some projects Pawlenty defines as local, such as events or recreational centers in Bemidji, St. Cloud, Rochester and Moorhead.
He frequently has said in recent weeks the only one he would accept is an expansion to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, and that is only because policymakers agreed to fund it for the past two years, but never came through with the money.
While Pawlenty complained about the lack of veterans' projects in the bill, mostly renovations for a home in Minneapolis, there was some veterans' homes funding.
For instance, an Alzheimer's unit at the Fergus Falls facility would get $2.7 million and the Silver Bay home would receive $227,000 to begin planning its future.
A proposed passenger rail line between Duluth and the Twin Cities would get a start with $1.5 million - down slightly from $1.7 million that was requested.
"It's just enough money to get us where we need to be in order to keep the project moving forward," said John Ongaro, the St. Louis County intergovernmental relations director.
The project eventually could cost $400 million by the time it is completed in 2011 or 2012, with the state paying $40 million. Federal dollars would fund 80 percent of the project, with another $40 million coming from local governments and private sources.
Ongaro said a group supporting the line has not received Pawlenty's backing, and the governor did not recommend any money for the line in his public works proposal.
State Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.