Democrats wait on construction bill moving

Published 9:15 am Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Minnesota lawmakers defused a standoff Tuesday over a borrowing plan for state-financed construction projects, reeling a $1 billion bill back from a sure veto to try to reach a compromise with GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a Democrat and candidate for governor, resorted to a parliamentary move to keep a bill passed Monday from reaching Pawlenty, who was promising to veto it. Kelliher hoped the “cooling off period” would restart negotiations, an approach welcomed by Pawlenty and leading legislative Republicans.

“There was no confusion what our expectations were for this bill regarding size, regarding priorities or the like,” Pawlenty said. His office distributed the veto letter he had prepared as well as one suggesting he is open to a deal.

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The bill’s Democratic sponsors, Rep. Alice Hausman and Sen. Keith Langseth, asked Pawlenty in a letter to outline exactly what he wants removed from the bill and what he wants added. In response, the governor gave them suggestions but not a formal list.

He implored them to add money for an expanded lockup for sex offenders confined under civil court orders, to pay for repairs at a maximum security prison in Oak Park Heights and to clear the way for a land purchase for a proposed state park in northern Minnesota. And he also outlined some subtractions, such as local sports complexes.

Pawlenty said he’d be willing to budge slightly on a $685 million bottom line from his initial proposal. But he made clear he won’t go anywhere near the $1 billion in projects endorsed by the Legislature, which is dominated by Democrats.

Despite Pawlenty’s veto threat, the House and Senate both worked into the night Monday to pass the bill. Both chambers approved it on lopsided votes, but legislative leaders decided later on not to deliver it to the governor.

Tuesday’s maneuver kept the bill from sliding back to the early stages, which could have added weeks to the process. Now it is likely to be returned to a House-Senate panel for continued deliberations and can reach Pawlenty after one more round of votes.

“As a mom I always believe there’s a second chance, and so this is the second chance for us to try again,” Kelliher said. “We have a second chance here. It’s a pause; it’s an opportunity. I think it’s the right thing to do right now.”

Democrats have argued that swift passage is necessary to put more construction money into this year’s pipeline at a time the economy could use an extra lift. Pawlenty’s administration said $1.5 billion from previously approved borrowing plans is waiting to be spent.

Republican Sen. Geoff Michel credited Democrats for averting a veto and said he hopes the sides can bargain in good faith.

“It’s only the third week of session,” Michel said. “We’ve got plenty of time to get things done in an open and transparent way. So I hope this next stage of the bonding bill will be open and will be transparent and will be bipartisan.”