Bonding on track, other issues in question

Minnesota lawmakers expect to approve borrowing money to fund public works construction projects across the state, but what else they do in this year's legislative session is anyone's guess.

Minnesota lawmakers expect to approve borrowing money to fund public works construction projects across the state, but what else they do in this year's legislative session is anyone's guess.

Pretty much everything is about money, and there isn't much of it to spend in the session that begins Wednesday. But a lack of money doesn't stop legislators from dreaming.

For instance, Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, sat at his desk recently and said he expects a short session.

"I would like to think we would come in and pass (the public works) bill, argue a little bit about other things and go home," Skoe said.

Then he picked up a list of about a dozen items he wants to pass in the session, most of which cost money.


Two hundred other lawmakers have similar lists, similar dreams. Even after House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he wants legislators to get their work done and go home quickly, he rattled off two-dozen significant items he wants passed.

Legislators will be debating a variety of outdoors-related issues, including dedicating some sales tax revenue to hunting, fishing, habitat and water projects.

They will also explore topics that involve little or no funding, such as whether local governments' powers should be restricted in turning private citizens' land over to businesses and finding ways to protect people's identities.

When lawmakers gather in St. Paul - starting a session the state constitution says must end by May 22 - their main job will be to approve a list of public works projects, to be funded by the sale of bonds. Nearly every legislator agrees a hefty bonding bill will pass.

That is good news for Sheryl Jones, who works in one of the buildings earmarked for remodeling money in the bonding bill. Jones said she loves where she works. She only wishes the roof didn't leak, dirt didn't fall out of the ceiling, it was easier to heat and that there wasn't a constant whirring sound from ventilation equipment.

"It really is a grand old building," Jones said of Minnesota State University Moorhead's MacLean Hall. "It is one of my favorite buildings on campus."

Beautiful woodwork, marble floors and an impressive staircase add to the building's ambiance, said Jones, a mathematics department secretary.

"It is just an old building that is getting worn out," she said of the 1932-era MacLean.


Jones and others in the building - which houses offices for several academic departments, classrooms, a bookstore and a coffee shop - are awaiting a $9.7 million remodeling project funded by the state and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

This is the third time MacLean has been on the list for remodeling. And while it is close this time, Gov. Tim Pawlenty did not include the project among his public works requests.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, chairman of the Senate committee that picks public works projects to fund, said he has no doubt that MacLean remodeling will be approved.

There is no longer talk around the Capitol halls like there was a couple of months ago about getting the bonding bill done early. Sviggum now says the House won't put the finishing touches on its bonding plan until late March at the earliest, and last week hinted the House and Senate would not agree on a final package until May.

Langseth proposes borrowing $965 million, to be repaid with general tax money. The House looks like it will approve more than $900 million.

Northwestern Minnesota flood-prevention measures are on the bonding list, including final funding for East Grand Forks projects that started after the 1997 flood.

Reps. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, and Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, introduced a bill to provide $1 million to reduce flood hazards along 23 miles of the Wild Rice River. Another $1.5 million is sought for floodwater storage in the area.

Lanning and Langseth also want continued funding for a dike project in Clay County's Oakport Township.


Other than public works projects - funded by bonds the state repays in 20 years - a lawsuit ties up what little money lawmakers thought they might have.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has scheduled an April hearing on a challenge to the Health Impact Fee, a tax on cigarettes lawmakers passed in July. The case is holding up more than $300 million the state had expected.

One issue in limbo because of the suit is property tax relief for homeowners. The state's $317 million tax relief fund was supposed to cut tax bills, but it may be needed to fund programs if the cigarette fee is ruled unconstitutional.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, puts property tax relief at the top of his agenda, and includes a source of funding.

Older Minnesotans, in particular, are seeing property taxes rise, Marquart said.

One way to help is to send more Local Government Aid to cities so they don't have to raise property taxes, Marquart said. He would fund the increased aid by eliminating corporate tax loopholes.

An economic forecast Tuesday predicting how much revenue the state can expect may clear up the state's financial picture. Lawmakers will base their funding decisions on the report.

Republicans and Democrats have promoted spending proposals, which Langseth said may not be wise.


"After that tobacco lawsuit thing, I think everybody should have kept their mouths shut until after the February (economic) forecast," Langseth said.

The lack of spending money is one of many factors that make the 2006 session the most difficult to predict in years. Politics, as always, is another factor.

"It is an election year, of course, so I am sure there will be a lot of things thrown into the mix," Eken said.

Sometimes a pending election like this year forces compromises, he said. The second-term lawmaker and political science teacher said that probably won't happen this year. Instead, he predicted that Democrats and Republicans will stick to their guns and not compromise.

As for the dream lists legislators have, "I think it is unlikely we are going to see a lot of movement on many of those issues," Eken said.

Outdoors issues will be a prime topic during the session.

A proposal to dedicate part of the state sales tax to outdoors programs has a lot of support, but Republicans and Democrats disagree on how to handle the dedication. Most Republicans say the money should come from existing taxes, while Democrats tend to favor increasing the sales tax.

Sen. Cal Larson, R-Fergus Falls, said Otter Tail County's 1,500 lakes need state support to remain clean. The sales tax issue would help, he said. The county's population is expected to grow 20,000 from today's 60,000, putting an increased burden on lakes, he said.


Larson said that if the Senate includes arts funding in the sales tax proposal, as is being proposed, it will kill the deal.

Most legislators favor changes in laws that allow governments to take private land and turn it over to businesses, a process known as eminent domain. While few cities have used the procedure recently, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling brought attention to the subject.

Lanning suggests a moderate approach, somewhat restricting eminent domain while leaving it as a tool for cities.

In his 22 years as Moorhead mayor, eminent domain was considered a half-dozen times, he said, but never used. "It's a tool of last resort."

Legislative leaders said last week that approving a Minnesota Twins ballpark is likely, although details remain to be worked out.

There also is a consensus that something should be done to make stealing a person's identity harder, but there is no agreement on specifics.

There is a division over transportation funding. Pawlenty and other key Republicans want to borrow $2.5 billion for road construction, while others favor increasing the gasoline tax.

The governor said with these issues and more, not everything will be accomplished.


"I think it is important where you can to take half a loaf," he said.

(Don Davis is the St. Paul bureau chief for Forum Communications Co.)

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