Minnesota Senate pushes $300 million public works bill
By Don Davis
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - Workers will fix roofs and walls, renovate buildings and, in general, improve state facilities later this year if some key legislators' wishes come true.
Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, on Tuesday announced he plans to push a $300 million public works bill, nearly three times what normally would be expected this year. Langseth, chairman of the Senate committee that approves public works project funding, said that his proposal would provide two advantages - fix buildings that long have needed work and provide at least 4,000 jobs during a recession.
"It's probably going to do more than anything else," Langseth said about putting people back to work.
At least half of the money would be used for routine building repairs, including many roofs that have leaked for years. The rest would go mostly to more extensive renovations, such as old college buildings.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, said that construction trades will do fine with jobs provided by federal economic stimulus money.
McClung said Pawlenty only would consider a public works funding measure - known as a bonding bill - if federal stimulus money sent to Minnesota requires the state to pay part of a construction project's costs.
"Gov. Pawlenty might be willing to consider a bonding bill to address matching funds for construction projects envisioned by the federal stimulus bill," McClung said. "But he believes a bonding bill should remain focused on those projects."
Federal economic stimulus funds probably will not require state money to proceed, Langseth said. Despite Pawlenty's reluctance to embrace a bonding bill, the senator said the governor probably will accept one.
Bonding bills often feature big, new buildings. However, Langseth said, this year he wants at least half of any bonding money to be spent on previously neglected repair projects. Other senators agreed during a Tuesday meeting in which they heard a long list of deferred maintenance items in many state agencies.
Langseth estimated that University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems have at least $1 billion in repair needs themselves.
Higher education officials said most repair projects on their campuses can be started in one to four months. Senators sought projects that start quickly to be the most help to the economy, but Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said that the recession will continue into next year and even projects that start then will help.
"Anyone who thinks this recession will be over in a year had their head in the sand," Pappas said.
Repair and energy-conservation work proposed for college campuses should save the state money, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said.
"This appears to be the ideal time to be building," Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said, referring to lower construction costs.
The administration is concerned that the proposal to borrow $300 million would add too much debt to the state budget, which already is over state officials' self-imposed debt limit. But Langseth said that Minnesota has the 43rd largest debt among the states, so a little more would not hurt.
Langseth said he will wait until he sees details from the federal stimulus package before preparing a detailed bill. He said he expects his committee to pass a bill within two weeks.