For U, millions hang on fate of bonding bill

State legislators hope to end the session before May.

Kevin Burbach

 

State legislators hope to leave the Capitol in a matter of weeks, and a bonding bill is among many issues yet to be settled.

The bill’s fate determines whether the University of Minnesota receives millions of dollars for construction projects and upkeep.

Three different bonding proposals have emerged this session, all varying in size and content, and legislators say they must work quickly with only weeks left in a session that representatives want to finish before May.

Gov. Mark Dayton met with Republican leadership three times Tuesday to discuss how to approach the end of the session, the governor’s spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said in an email. As of Tuesday, Tinucci said nothing had changed regarding a bonding bill.

Larry Howes, R-Walker, who chairs the House’s Capital Investment Committee, said he believes there’s a “very good likelihood” that a bonding bill will pass this session.

“If we don’t pass the bonding bill on Thursday or Friday, then you know we’re in trouble.”

But what’s included in that bill is still up for debate.

Dayton, a DFLer, proposed a $775 million bonding bill earlier in the session that included $107 million for the University and only $20 million for Higher Education Asset Preservation and Renovation — far less than the $90 million the University had requested for HEAPR, which is used for building repair and upkeep.

Howes, as well as Democratic-Farmer-Labor Reps. Alice Hausman and Phyllis Kahn, said HEAPR for the University and funding for projects at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities are essential pieces of a bonding bill, as well as a “whole litany of items.”

“In every bonding bill we write, I believe, higher education is the most critical part of the bonding bill,” Hausman said.

While the Senate produced a bonding proposal almost twice the amount of that in the House — $496 million in the Senate compared to $280 million in the House — the University would receive $39 million from each.

University President Eric Kaler called the House and Senate’s proposals for the University “woefully inadequate.”

The House’s bill was the smallest of the three proposals overall, but Howes said it was intentional to ensure the funds are appropriated to restore the state Capitol — a project that has broad support but mixed views on how to accomplish it.

Howes said it would make sense to create a bill entirely separate from a bonding bill for Capitol restoration. The current plan would pay for restorations over the course of four years.

“The Capitol restoration would be a bill of the century, not of the biennium,” he said. “You can’t score that as a biennial bill. It’s just too big.”

The Senate included $25 million for Capitol restoration in its proposal.

Kahn and Hausman said DFLers are supportive of a bonding bill but said it would be tough to convince DFL legislators to vote for a significantly smaller bill.

Hausman said legislators are wary of voting for smaller bonding packages if the proposal neglects projects that could benefit their district or doesn’t include enough proposals that are beneficial to the state as a whole.

Howes, a proponent of a slightly larger bonding bill than what was proposed in the House, said if Capitol restoration was placed in a separate bill, more money could be put into the bonding bill and the state.

Howes said he hopes to keep the bonding totals less than $1 billion for the biennium. The Legislature passed a $531 million  bonding bill at the end of the 2011 special session.

Howes said Dayton’s nearly $800 million proposal, which doesn’t include money for Capitol restoration, is too large and the Legislature would need to find a happy medium somewhere between the three proposals.

While there’s indication from some that a bonding bill might not happen this session, many — including University officials — are hopeful.

Jason Rohloff, special assistant to the president for government relations for the University, said he’s “hopeful that they will come to an agreement.”

Rohloff, who has years of experience working at the Legislature, said, “Often things look pretty bleak, but at the end of the day, they get together and strike a deal.”