U bill to get another try

After seven months of uncertainty, the University’s capital bonding request might have another shot at being approved before the new year.

The Legislature adjourned in May without passing the bill that contains $155.5 million in bonding requests for many University building projects.

But Friday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty asked legislators if they would be willing to convene for one day to pass certain bonding items.

Only the governor can call a special session. House Speaker Rep. Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said only items that chambers and the governor agree on will be discussed in a special session.

“If we wait and get caught up with other issues, there might not be a consensus anymore,” Sviggum said.

If the bonding bill is not passed in a special session, it can be addressed during the regular 2005 session.

During the 2004 session, legislators and Pawlenty agreed on funding for many of the University’s projects. However, differences between the House, Senate and governor’s bills will have to be worked out to pass one bill.

The Senate’s bonding proposal would have given the University more funding than either the House or Pawlenty’s proposals in the 2004 session.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said that although the University’s top four projects would be considered in a special session, she is worried about losing the other projects.

Pappas, who is chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Budget Division, said she would only agree to a special session if nonconsensus items would be heard during the 2005 session, which begins in January.

“It seems very odd that the governor is calling it now,

especially when it’s a lame-duck session,” she said. “I don’t

understand the rationale.”

Also, Pappas said the Senate would like the 13 new Democrats elected to the House in the 2004 election to be a part of the process.

But Sviggum said it would be better to pass the projects now to take advantage of low interest rates and get them started sooner.

If everyone agrees to the same items, there will not be a repeat of what happened during the summer, Sviggum said.

He said the Senate Democrats refused a special session to prevent voting on a marriage amendment that would have been on the November ballot, had it passed. But now that the election is over, Sviggum said, the parties could put their partisanship aside.

“There’s nothing that divides us and nothing to prevent Senate from doing things we have in common,” he said.

Cost and inflation

The University’s goal is to pass as many of the projects as possible, said Marty McDonough, University legislative relations coordinator.

He said it would be nice to get back on track with bonding bills and pass them in a timely fashion instead of carrying them over into the next session.

The University would like to get the projects started soon, McDonough said, because inflation is driving up construction costs.

During a committee meeting on Monday at the Capitol, Lee Mehrkens, capital budget coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Finance, said construction inflation has increased more than anticipated.

Although the University takes inflation into account when making its bonding request, McDonough said the extra time between the request and the passage means building costs are higher.

Last year, the Department of Finance estimated construction inflation would increase 3 percent, but now it is approximately 11 percent. This is the largest jump in construction inflation since the 1970s, Mehrkens said.

He said that construction inflation had gone up because of increased labor wages and cost of materials.

Brian McClung, Pawlenty’s press secretary, said the governor is aware of inflation and construction costs and wants to make sure certain projects get funding.

Pawlenty is willing to work with the different funding levels between his proposal, the House and the Senate proposals, McClung said.

Joining together

The city of St. Paul, the Northstar commuter rail line and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities said they have talked about joining the University of Minnesota to encourage passage of the bonding bill.

Linda Kohl, MnSCU associate vice chancellor for public affairs, said it’s important for Minnesota’s public higher education to unite and make a strong case at the Legislature.

Tom Triplett, senior policy adviser to St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, said some of the University of Minnesota’s projects will benefit St. Paul – and vice versa.

Bioscience is a partnership project between the University of Minnesota and St. Paul, he said. Kelly and Bob Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, formed the project

The Legislature should help the University of Minnesota because of the cuts the institution received in the past, Triplett said.

“Higher education has been under attack in the past few years,” he said. “One thing the Legislature can do, if it can’t reduce tuition, is at least make sure the buildings are better on campus.”