Senate offers $1M for dredging

Published 11:49 am Tuesday, May 6, 2014

By Albert Lea Tribune and Associated Press

Only $1 million out of a $7.5 million request to dredge Fountain Lake was included in the Senate bonding bill released Monday.

The bill, which totals $1.1 billion, combines borrowing and cash financing for projects ranging from refurbishment of aging buildings on college campuses to flood prevention to theater restorations.

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The proposal calls for borrowing of $846 million and for using about $200 million in cash from the state’s $1.2 billion budget surplus due to come in over the next year.

“We’re frustrated with the legislative process,” said Brett Behnke, administrator of the Shell Rock River Watershed District. “One million is inadequate for our project. For the past four years we have been asked to phase this project and have done so. We no longer have time to phase it.”

The comments come after House leaders included the full $7.5 million request in their proposal last month. The project remained intact Monday evening after House leaders revised the bill. Though it was not listed in Gov. Mark Dayton’s recommendations in January, local leaders said the governor has expressed a desire to add a southern Minnesota project.

As they stand now, the House and Senate would enter final negotiations needing to sort out whether to spend money to outfit Minnesota’s newest state park, to pipe water into southern Minnesota and to reconstruct the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History in St. Paul. Those are among the big differences, with plenty of smaller ones throughout the two bills.

Behnke said while he is glad the Albert Lea project is in the Senate bill in some fashion, $1 million would not be enough to move it forward.

He called on the community to show support for the dredging during the last few weeks of the legislative session.

“We’ve had some reassurances from the House,” he said. “Let’s hope they stay strong.”

Officials have stated the entire project is estimated at $15 million, with the other half of the cost coming from a local-option sales tax.

“I was a little disappointed that we weren’t able to get a higher number on the senate side,” District 27 Sen. DanSparks said of the Fountain Lake project.

Sparks, who is on the Capital Investment Committee, said he has heard from people in the Albert Lea area who were unhappy about the number, but he described the bonding bill as a process, adding it was important to at least get the project in the bill so it can move forward to negotiations between the Senate and House.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that this is a process,” he said.

The project is necessary because the lake has become filled with sediment — as much as 5 to 8 feet in some areas. The accumulation has resulted in water quality impairment and large algae blooms.

Local leaders have lobbied the dredging project would increase economic development for Albert Lea and the state through increased tourism, spending and strengthening the economy of southern Minnesota.

Senate Capital Investment Committee Chairman LeRoy Stumpf said there were far more worthy projects than money to go around. He said the bill emphasizes repairs to crumbling infrastructure while also making room for cultural amenities.

“A lot of our communities are getting up to 125, 150 years old and stuff doesn’t last forever. We have to make a recommitment as a Legislature to figure out how to fund these core things you need to run,” said Stumpf, DFL-Plummer. “You need to have development. You need housing. You need roads. You need bridges.”

Beginning last year, committee members traveled more than 2,450 miles to identify 170 potential projects. The measure is one of a few major bills that lawmakers hope to pass before adjourning their election-year session.

Republicans said that projects they see as essential — such as pothole repair money or full funding for a water pipeline in southern Minnesota — have been crowded out by frilly items, such as zoo exhibits or ski hill enhancements.

“Bonding is debt. It’s borrowing. It has to be repaid,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. “So we must be smart about how we use that money. Projects should have regional or statewide impact.”

Minnesota’s credit rating is a notch beneath the AAA top level. It has more than $6.2 billion in outstanding general obligation debt already, but state finance guidelines leave plenty of room to borrow billions more.

Majority Democrats in the House and Senate need some Republican votes to meet a three-fifths passing threshold on the borrowing plan. The separate-but-connected cash bill requires only a simple majority.

About one-third of the combined proceeds in the Senate bill would go to state colleges and universities for new buildings or renovation of existing structures. Science labs would be upgraded at the University of Minnesota and on campuses overseen by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

The largest single item is $126 million to finish the Capitol renovation; the Senate’s plan would pay for that in cash.

There’s $80 million devoted to affordable housing projects, which Stumpf said represents the largest investment of that type in state history. The Senate proposal is more generous than Dayton’s recommendation on that front.

The bill also authorizes money to build out the new state park at Lake Vermilion, to repair local bridges and to remodel the state’s security hospital in St. Peter. Civic center upgrades in Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato would get a boost, as would theater repairs across the state.