House rejects bonding bill in late-night vote

Maggie Hessel-Mial

House members rejected the $839 million bonding bill late Thursday after hours of debate focusing not on the $131 million for University projects but on the $9 million North Star Corridor project – a commuter rail line connecting St. Cloud and the Twin Cities.

Legislators were unsure whether the $131 million slated for University bonding projects would remain intact when the bonding bill again reaches the floor in the days ahead.

“I don’t think higher education is going to suffer,” said Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis. “I can’t remember any one of the higher education things used as pawns.”

The $131 million would not provide any funding for system-wide classroom upgrades such as desks, light tables and other technological upgrades. The University requested $4 million for such amenities.

“We needed to focus on priorities instead of saying yes to every (project) like the Senate,” said Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud.

The House bonding bill – funding nine University projects – fell below the Senate’s $1.2 billion plan, which funds all 16 University-requested projects. Gov. Jesse Ventura’s bill allocates money for seven.

“The House’s proposal is significantly below the Senate’s,” said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis. “But it could have been a lot worse.”

The Nicholson Hall renovation would be given full funding under the bill. The building will provide an academic advising and social home for incoming freshmen who might not have declared a major.

Holes in funding would leave Phase II of the St. Paul campus’ new greenhouse out of luck, something Rep. Peggy Leppik, R-Golden Valley, said she is concerned about.

“The problem with the University is that most of the projects are hugely expensive,” Leppik said. “In order to fund them, we have to kill off a lot of other projects.”

Rep. Bob Ness, R-Dassel, said he thinks the bill is fair and addresses critical needs in higher education.

“The House is doing a lot for the University of Minnesota and (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities),” Ness said. “You have to balance all the needs of the state.”

If representatives approve the bonding bill, senators and representatives will meet in a conference committee to mold a compromise bill. Many legislators say they hope more University projects get a nod for funding.

Ventura has the power to veto the conference committee’s bill or deny funding for specific items. He recently said he will not accept a bonding bill exceeding $500 million because of the increased state deficit projected in the February forecast.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal said,”I’m more concerned with what’s not in the bill than what’s in it.”

With interest rates so low and the economy in a recession, Carlson said now is the time to commit to more building projects.

“There is a target of opportunity,” he said. “With interest rates so low we can get more bang for the buck.”

In other Capitol news, the Senate passed a bill Wednesday giving the go-ahead for a Minnesota Twins baseball team stadium.

The bill includes provisions to fund the stadium through user fees on tickets, memorabilia and food sold within the facility.

Revenue brought in by the Twins’ stadium would be put into a sports facilities account and could be used to pay for a Vikings and Gophers football stadium.

But Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said he didn’t think the Gophers would see a bill to fund a home for the team this session.

“Proper funding of the University is of much higher priority,” Pogemiller said. “If a stadium is built, there are University interests and neighborhood interests that need to be discussed. But those issues are for another day.”