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Paynesville Press - April 26, 2006

More trail funding proposed in bonding bills

By Melissa Andrie

Both bodies of the Minnesota Legislature have passed versions of a bonding bill for capital improvements and job creation throughout the state of Minnesota. Last Tuesday, a conference committee, which will work out the differences between the bills, was announced.

The bonding bill passed by the Senate in March totaled nearly $990 million, while the House bill passed last week amounts to $949 million. Governor Tim Pawlenty released an $811 million bill in January, before the legislative session began.

Bonds are funds borrowed by the state that are used for major construction projects, and they typically create thousands of jobs throughout Minnesota. Projects included this year focus on education, transportation, and the environment and are split very evenly between rural and metro projects, noted Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City).

The Glacial Lakes State Trail, which is located a few miles north of Paynesville along an abandoned railroad bed, is included in the both the Senate and the House bills for $1 million in improvement funding from Paynesville to Richmond. Planned improvements include safety initiatives, according to Sen. Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar).

A sewer project for the city of Richmond did not have the same success. This local project could still be funded this year, since $20.3 million in the Senate bill and $23 million in the House bill is designated for wastewater infrastructure funding, to be granted to local governments by the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority on the basis of a point system. The age of the current system, the number of people it supports, the average income of those citizens, local utilities rates, and the amount local and federal governments are contributing will all be taken into account in the point system, said Johnson.

When the Senate bill was on the floor for the last time before its passage, Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) proposed amending the bill to directly allocate money to Richmond for the wastewater treatment plant. That proposal was voted down, with Johnson and Sen. Steve Dille (R-Dassel) both voting against it.

Rep. Larry Hosch (R-St. Joseph) said that his "biggest concern is the Richmond city sewer plan," and he is glad that funding is included for wastewater systems. However, he is disappointed that guaranteed funds could not be provided for the city of Richmond, and he plans to attend all of the conference committee meetings to advocate for the project.

Funds from the same pool could be allocated to Brooten and St. Martin, since Brooten cannot expand before its system is improved and St. Martin can onlyhave three houses added before it is at its limit, added Rep. Bud Heidgerken (R-Freeport).

Both cities are likely to get the funding this year or next year, he predicted, and Heidgerken would like to see a lot of money in the fund, making it more probable that they are funded right away.

The Senate bill includes $376 million for higher education, with the University of Minnesota receiving $153 million and $223 million going to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MNSCU). On the other side, the House proposal includes $309 million, with $121 million for the U of M and $188 million for MNSCU. The governor's proposal has $289 million for state colleges and universities.

Differences in the funding for higher education include money for five bioscience buildings on the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, a project which the Senate wants to provide with $40 million, the House suggests $20 million, and the governor suggests $4.3 million, in order to fund only project planning. The Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota has been included for the full $26.6 million by the House and governor and for $13.3 million by the Senate.

Transportation funding also varies, with $138 million in the Senate bill, $145 million in the House proposal, and $141 million in Governor Pawlenty's recommendation. The major factor in this difference is funding for the suggested Northstar commuter rail line from Minneapolis to St. Cloud, which the Senate and governor included for $37.5 million and the House proposal gives $10 million.

The Northstar commuter rail line, which would go from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis (and may eventually connect to St. Cloud), was given $50 million by the House, while the Senate included the full $60 million requested.

Funding is also included in the bonding bills for zoos, parks, housing, safety, and the environment across the state. Two local state parks, Glacial Lakes and Sibley, have funding of $2 million in both the Senate and House bills to construct camper cabins. Additionally, the New London Dam will be renovated, and Urdahl is pleased with the money included for a conservation resource enhancement project.

Of the local legislators, all three representatives - Heidgerken, Hosch, and Urdahl - all voted in favor of the House's bill, and two of the senators - Johnson and Urdahl - voted for the Senate's bill, with Fischbach voting against.

The conference committee, consisting of five members from both the House and the Senate, will negotiate a joint bill, and this process is made easier by the close total amounts of the bills passed already. For any changes to be made, the majority of the members from each body must be in favor of a proposal. The final bill will then be sent to both bodies of the legislature for final passage.

If this bill passes through both houses, it will be sent to the governor to sign, after which it will become law.

(Editor's Note: Andrie is a 2004 graduate of Paynesville Area High School and a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. This is her second year of covering the legislature for the Press.)

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