All together now: Tackling bonding and budgets


It’s not a coincidence that the Minnesota Legislature meets to hand out state funding for construction projects and other desired baubles on even-numbered election years.

Odd-numbered years are for the hard work of putting together a two-year budget for the state, while the “bonding session” as this year’s gathering is commonly known, is supposed to be where the 201 state lawmakers make people happy before they go into the voting booth.

More from CAPITOL REPORT: Pulling back the curtain on the legislature to “share what I know and give people a somewhat insider’s view of how decisions are actually made inside that building and how normal citizens can have the best chance of influencing those decisions.”

In today’s tough economic times, some lawmakers are already calling for passage of $1 billion in spending on construction and other work-generating projects in the first weeks of the session.

But that tough economy is also raining on the parade. A November economic forecast for the state predicts that there’s still a $1.2 billion hole in the current budget those lawmakers agonized over just last year before Gov. Tim Pawlenty decided unilaterally where and what to cut.

That budget runs through June of next year. Projections for the next two-year budget cycle right now show a $5.4 billion deficit, but lawmakers won’t be working on that until next year.

Still, the current budget will be back on the table this year, especially after a judge tossed out part of Pawlenty’s ability to make those cuts as unconstitutional.

So where does that leave the bonding bill (so-called because the state issues bonds to finance the debt incurred to pay for the projects included in it)?

Well, local governments submitted requests to fund 153 projects at a total cost of $783 million for this year’s bonding session, and state agencies submitted $2 billion in requests. So there would have to be a lot of cutting even to come up with that big $1 billion bonding bill DFLers want to see.

But Pawlenty’s bonding recommendation is for a bill that borrows only $684 million, and uses $338 million in other sources such as highway funds and federal dollars. And his recommendation doesn’t include any projects sponsored by local authorities.

For the Twin Cities, that means requests of $25 million for a regional ballpark in St. Paul, $22 million to renovate Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall and Peavey Plaza, $17.5 million to expand the Ordway Theater, $10 million for streetscaping on University Avenue and more start off the session on the wrong side of Pawlenty’s ledgers.

Of course, Pawlenty’s bonding proposal is only one leg of a three-legged stool on which the final bill is ultimately crafted (or not). The DFL-dominated House of Representatives and Senate will have their own ideas, but as we saw last year, there’s very little that this governor can’t block if he sets his mind to it.