Bonding requests dominate first legislative session

Megan Boldt

Minnesota’s 2000 legislative session commences today at noon, with legislators focusing on a variety of issues, including education, bonding and the possibility of a unicameral legislature.
“Most of the issues our committee will be dealing with are bonding requests,” said Rep. Peggy Leppik, R-Golden Valley, the chair of the House Higher Education Finance committee.
Leppik said the committee has toured higher-education institutions requesting bonding, which will be the main focus this legislative session.
The University is requesting $134.3 million in state funding this year. Gov. Jesse Ventura proposed granting only $54 million of the University’s proposal Jan. 14.
In the last bonding session in 1998, the University requested $249 million and received $245 million. Most of the funding went toward building renovations and construction of new facilities. The funding spurred the first phase of University President Mark Yudof’s four-year capital plan.
Yudof encouraged a group of volunteer lobbyists Wednesday to help push legislators to fund University projects.
“We need your help to do better than $54 million,” Yudof said.
Given the small capital investment plan, Richard Pfutzenreuter, the University’s chief financial adviser, said he is not surprised by the governor’s proposed funding for the University.
The University has requested funding for building projects in a capital budget request, which differs from the overall state capital investment bill, which funds projects throughout the state.
“I believe (the University’s) projects are important to the students and the state,” Pfutzenreuter said.
He also said this will be a step backward for the University. Whatever doesn’t get funded this session will have to be postponed at least two years until funds can be allocated.
Ventura’s spokesman John Wodele said the governor had more than $1 billion in requests to examine.
All projects were ranked by importance, with statewide purpose being the No. 1 criteria, Wodele said.
“The governor chose those with the highest ranking,” he said. “It doesn’t mean those not chosen were not good ideas; they might have to wait until next session.”
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said the biggest disappointment was the lack of funding for the proposed art building on the West Bank. She noted the current building violates several health and safety codes.
The University requested $21 million to replace the Art Building.
Representatives will look to provide more funding for higher education, Leppik added. But, she said, the House will work to stay close to Ventura’s proposal.
Leppik also said the session will be relatively quiet, at least with regard to the University. There will be more bonding issues for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, rather than the University.
“How closely to the governor’s proposal it will come, I don’t know,” Leppik said.
The House is required to have their recommendations in the form of a priority list by the end of February.
Every even-numbered year is a bonding year for the state government. The state sells bonds to fund projects such as repairing and building new roads and structures.
Ventura proposed a $462 million capital investment plan, one of the smallest proposals in the past decade. State Rep. Kahn said the governor’s bonding bill is modest and she doubts that it will pass the Legislature as is.
“I think the bonding bill will end up being much bigger,” Kahn said.
Wodele said the governor created the capital investment plan with a responsible spending limit in mind.
“He proposed enough money to do the things that are necessary,” Wodele said.
The smaller the bonding bill, the smaller higher education’s share.
A unicameral legislature?
One of the top legislative issues, spearheaded by Ventura, is eliminating one of the houses of the Legislature to create a unicameral legislature.
Sen. Allan Spear, DFL-Minneapolis, supports moving to a unicameral legislature.
Spear, the Senate president and former University history professor, said he is not bashing the current system, which he said is doing well.
“When you have a relatively good system, you can still make it better,” Spear said.
He said the House and the Senate are almost identical, except for the difference in term length. The House has two-year terms, whereas the Senate has a four-year terms.
“The purpose of having two houses at the state level is not valid anymore,” Spear said.
He also said conference committees between the two houses, the last stop a bill has to make before being sent to the governor for approval, is the worst aspect of the legislative process.
“A lot of bad decisions are made by a handful of people,” Spear said of the conference committees.
Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, feels that moving to a unicameral system could be dangerous, said Vic Moore, Moe’s legislative assistant.
“(Moe) feels very strongly that the government needs checks and balances,” Moore said.
Moore also said the current system was put into the Constitution for a purpose. One-party domination is not what the voters want, he said.
The likelihood of the proposal passing through both houses is bleak, Spear said.
“I think it could pass through the House, but the votes are not there in the Senate,” he said.
Moore said there will be serious debate and discussion over the proposal, but in the end, the bicameral system would remain intact.

Megan Boldt covers state government and welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3212.