Setting an ambitious target for state spending on construction projects, Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday that he’s contemplating a $975 million bonding bill in the coming legislative session.
The governor’s recommendation would be about $125 million richer than the request from legislative leaders, who reached a “handshake agreement” on an $850 million package in July.
Bob Hume, Dayton’s deputy chief of staff, said in an email that the governor is still working on his formal bonding recommendation, which is due in mid-January. For now, he doesn’t have any more details, Hume said.
Passage of a nearly $1 billion bill won’t be easy. In the final days of the 2013 session, an $800 million House bonding bill fell five votes short of passage after garnering only three Republican votes.
Although the state may have the capacity to borrow $975 million for projects, gubernatorial candidate and Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said the focus should be on actual needs rather than borrowing as much money as possible.
“The thing that concerns me about the governor’s position is his rationale: ‘We have the ability to do it, we have the ability to handle more borrowing, so let’s engage in the borrowing,’” said Thompson.
“Everyone understands that bonding is for capital projects that are used by our citizens over time. We need to do those things. But our decisions should be based on priorities or needs,” not how much the state can borrow, Thompson said Wednesday.
Based on requests submitted to the Minnesota Management & Budget office, there’s no shortage of needs.
In July, state and local agencies submitted a $2.8 billion wish list for projects ranging from the ongoing State Capitol restoration ($126.3 million request) to a granite wall renovation at the St. Cloud men’s prison ($12.6 million).
On Wednesday, fresh off the release of a state forecast that shows a $1.086 billion state surplus, Dayton met with lawmakers involved in putting together a bonding bill for the 2014 session.
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, chair of the House Capital Investment Committee, said the governor’s $975 million recommendation is at “an appropriate level.”
“I think that’s great,” she said Wednesday. “We had a chance to talk to him this morning. He mentioned that was the number he was working with.”
State lawmakers have finished their travels around the state, looking at candidates for bonding money, and “now we are getting down to the spreadsheets and what works,” Hausman added.
Hausman said her bonding priorities include higher education, public safety and “basic infrastructure” including roads and bridges and wastewater facilities.
“Higher education is clearly where we always put a huge emphasis,” Hausman said.
House Republicans will look at the February budget forecast to find out more about the state’s debt capacity and determine “how big the credit card is going to be” for bonding, said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, the Republican lead on the House Capital Investment Committee.
As for the mix of projects, Dean said maintaining existing infrastructure and assets should be a focus. The ongoing Capitol renovation would “be within the footprint” of that approach, he said.
A year ago, Dayton proposed a $750 million bonding bill for 2013, an unusually large number for an odd year. In the end, lawmakers approved a more modest $156 million package.
The governor’s latest recommendation is in line with the wishes of the Building Jobs Coalition, a 100-member group that includes construction contractors, architects, engineers, developers, union representatives and public officials.
Coalition member Dave Semerad, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, said the coalition will push for a $1 billion bonding bill this year.
“We will have a platform to release in a few days,” Semerad said.
Dan McConnell, business manager of the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council, would welcome a big bonding bill.
“We think the government needs to invest in infrastructure,” McConnell said. “It spurs job growth. We are all for it; putting people to work makes our state a better state.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.