Dayton pitches $1.4B construction package

Published 4:52 pm Saturday, January 16, 2016

ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton made a pitch to lawmakers Friday on his plan to borrow $1.4 billion to tackle a massive to-do list of public construction projects this year, including building less-restrictive housing for sex offenders that could turn off legislators wary of appearing soft on crime.

Mark Dayton

Mark Dayton

There are big-ticket items in Dayton’s proposed bill, like $70 million to renovate the state’s hospital for people considered mentally ill and dangerous and nearly $67 million for a new health science building at the University of Minnesota, along with millions of dollars more for rehab projects at state parks, upkeep at public universities, and upgrades for aging water infrastructure statewide.

He appealed to the Legislature to support his plan, arguing that low interest rates and Minnesota’s relatively low debt load make the time right to issue bonds for the funding to tackle a long and growing list of projects. But the Democratic governor prepared for a backlash, both over its size and specific projects like building two new facilities for patients in Minnesota’s embattled sex offender program.

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Dayton said he didn’t relish the thought of spending money on people who have committed heinous crimes. But he defended those facilities as necessary given a federal judge’s order to amend a program that’s been deemed unconstitutional.

“It’s tough sell. I hope people will recognize the imperative,” he said.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank ruled Minnesota’s program unconstitutional in June, citing the rarity of inmate releases. He ordered the state to conduct more regular evaluations and to provide alternative treatment centers for patients ready to be released.

Though Minnesota has appealed Frank’s ruling and Dayton still insists the program is constitutional, the governor said those projects are prudent. His proposal calls for spending $12.4 million to build a pair of facilities, leading the top Republican who handles bonding bills to stress caution.

“It’s an extremely delicate issue,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska. “Releasing these folks into the general population is very high risk. We’re not going to facilitate that unless we’re sure our citizens are going to be safe.”

The fixes to the sex offender program are just part of a sharp bent on public safety. Dayton also proposed a massive overhaul at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, which has been wracked by both patient escapes and injuries to staff members on the job. Rather than spring for new prisons — or re-opening old ones — to ease overcrowding at state facilities, Dayton proposed expanding three existing prisons to boost state capacity by 165 beds.

And though Dayton largely opted not to tap into his bonding bill to fund part of a massive road-and-bridge-repair package in the works, he earmarked almost $75 million to rebuild a pair of bridges in the Twin Cities. House Republicans countered that Dayton should have done more.

“Fixing our state’s roads and bridges is a priority for Minnesotans in all parts of the state, and should be one of the first priorities in any bonding bill,” House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin said in a statement.

Dayton said he’d prefer other funding sources, but expected that to become one of many points of negotiation once the Legislature resumes in early March. Torkelson said the GOP likely wouldn’t assemble its own proposal until later in the session, but its previous plans for transportation leaned heavily on financing those projects with debt.

Dayton defended the total size of his proposal, arguing it pales in comparison to the nearly $4 billion in shovel-ready requests his office received.

“If we short-shrift these projects … we are going to incapacitate Minnesota in the years ahead,” he said.