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One of the outstanding things I noticed about Minnesota on arriving here in the early 1970s, right up there with the refreshing coolness of the summer mornings, was the high quality of the state's physical public infrastructure.

Lawmakers should pass Dayton’s bonding bill

Dane Smith

Dane Smith

One of the outstanding things I noticed about Minnesota on arriving here in the early 1970s, right up there with the refreshing coolness of the summer mornings, was the high quality of the state’s physical public infrastructure.

The very first things I noticed were first-class highway rest areas and tourist information centers.

But in short order I also came to wonder at a truly magnificent state Capitol building, the impressive public buildings at the State Fair, the classy architecture at my new Inver Hills Community College, the very nice neighborhood libraries and recreation centers throughout the Twin Cities, and state and local park systems that were a cut above any I had ever seen.

I eventually noticed the somewhat higher income taxes, too. But it felt then and now like the deal worked – and then some – and that businesses and families flourished in this environment of good public stuff.

I gradually came to see how Minnesota was not only richer, but more evenly prosperous and socioeconomically healthier than almost every other state, especially compared with austere, low-tax Oklahoma and Virginia, where I had lived most recently.

As the years passed, I also came to understand how the Legislature’s regular “bonding bill,” which could more properly be called a “public improvements” bill, contributed directly to Minnesota’s superior quality of life, business growth and a more broadly distributed prosperity.

New DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has introduced another such bill for the 2011 Legislature, and the usual debate has broken out over whether it’s an investment in short-term job creation and long-term economic health, or profligate use of a “credit card.”

The case for the bill as wise investment seems to be winning, based on early feedback from community and business leaders from Rochester to Moorhead and points in between.

And one can only hope that this growing consensus in favor of a right-sized bonding bill in 2011 will prevail on the Legislature’s new Republican majorities.

It’s the business leaders in Rochester, for instance, who are pressing the case for keeping up the momentum on public investments (strongly supported by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty) that will create a thriving biobusiness center in this southeastern Minnesota metropolis, anchored of course by the internationally acclaimed Mayo Clinic.

The Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce’s website notes that it fully supports the bonding bill’s provision for expanding and improving the Mayo Civic Center, part of a total of $50 million for civic centers in Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato.

The Rochester business establishment also supports provisions in the bonding bill for other public investments: for renovations at Rochester Community & Technical College, a restoration project at Lake Zumbro, a MnDOT facility upgrade (which passed in 2010), the co-location of a Workforce Development Center and construction of new rail lines.

And, interestingly, Rochester business interests also are pressing for the authority to increase local sales taxes for additional public investments.

Over in south-central Minnesota, meanwhile, the Mankato Free Press has opined that the bonding bill provision for expansion of that city’s civic center is “by no means a pork-barrel project, but basic fairness for a community that works hard and spreads its economic vitality throughout the region.”

And news media outlets across the state seem to be reacting positively to the community-enhancing investments, including an Asian carp-blocking improvement to the Coon Rapids Dam; flood hazard-mitigation projects in western Minnesota; and water-quality monitoring wells from Luverne to Bemidji.

An even broader statewide consensus exists for one of the larger projects on the list, a new physics and nanotechnology building at the University of Minnesota. Overwhelming agreement exists among economists and business leaders that public investment in research and technology pays off in the long run – and that the United States and Minnesota are falling behind other nations on this score.

The bonding proposal includes dozens of asset preservation items, for roof repairs, energy retrofits and heating systems, and compliance with federal and state safety standards.

The Fox News outlet in Duluth found an angle on that need, noting that the National Guard facility in Duluth was almost 50 years old and deficient on many fronts, including women’s restroom facilities for a guard that is increasingly female.

Neglecting these needs will cost the state more money down the road. Construction costs are reasonable in today’s market, unemployment in construction trades is still high, private contractors are starving for work – and the majority of jobs created from a bonding bill are private-sector jobs.

The bill would have little effect on the state’s budget squeeze, and the overall debt obligations from the bill fall within the state’s traditional limits on debt repayment as a percentage of the total general fund.

Skeptics might score some points with their arguments that some projects on the Dayton list are unnecessary – and to his credit, he has taken the unprecedented step of encouraging legislators to use their own discretion for almost half the $1 billion he is proposing.

But the short-term arguments are not even the best rationale for moving ahead with the bonding bill.

The Star Tribune editorialized last week for approval, arguing that “both Dayton’s emphasis on short-term job creation and GOP skepticism are misplaced. Legislators ought to approve most of the projects on Dayton’s list this year, not for the jobs they would create in the next several years, but for the good they would do Minnesota for years to come.”

This way we could ensure that the next newcomers to Minnesota are as impressed as I was by both a built public environment and top-notch human capital in a state that doesn’t have palm trees or cheap labor to lure people and investment.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.

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