MARSHALL - District 16 Sen. Gary Dahms doesn't have a problem with politicians deciding where bonding money goes but said Wednesday if the new program that puts the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development in charge of doling out dollars works, he's all for it.
State lawmakers created the fund after leaving a long list of projects out of this year's construction package.
That put $47.5 million squarely in the hands of DEED, which received 90 requests totaling more than $288 million.
That's fine with Dahms, who said as long as politics doesn't play a factor in the decision-making process, the program could work.
"That's the big question: Can you keep politics out of it?" he said. "I don't think there's anything wrong with legislators writing letters of support for specific projects, as long as that project meets the criteria of the program, but I think for legislators to start leaning on the folks over at DEED, that's a mistake. Maybe I'm naive, but I don't believe that will happen. I hope that doesn't happen."
"It's about perspective - do they base the projects on population distribution, importance and need ," said District 16A Rep. Chris Swedzinski. "I think if we have a steady hand that puts the projects in priority with the criteria, if that's the system they adopt, then you can keep politics out of it."
The requests will be weighed on a list of criteria, such as job creation, regional significance and economic development.
Rural Minnesota projects, Dahms said, could actually find themselves in a better situation through the new process because the requests many of them are making are considerably smaller than those in larger communities like St. Paul and Rochester.
"A lot of times when rural communities apply for a grant they really have the need and they meet the criteria," he said. "Even though they're small communities, those projects really have an impact that is felt in those communities. At this point in time I believe in rural Minnesota we have just as good an opportunity as larger communities in the Twin Cities area."
Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said not only are many of the requests made by larger cities quite higher, but the true need might not be reflected in the eyes of DEED like it is in smaller cities.
"I really think this program has an opportunity to be an excellent program," he said. "I think the past process makes it tough for rural Minnesota to get their share in a lot of situations."
One need look no further than Marshall for evidence of that. The city of Marshall has twice been denied its $4 million request to help pay for a new regional amateur sports complex. It has, however, attained money in the past for the MERIT Training Center.
Marshall submitted that same $4 million request to DEED, along with a $2.5 million request for MERIT Center expansions.
Other area cities that made a pitch for some of the money from DEED are Canby, $585,000 for soil correction, and utility and street improvements; and Cottonwood, $600,000 for a new fire hall/ambulance garage.
"It sounds like there's a lot of competition, but it sounded like they'll try to divvy up the funds metro versus outstate, so we're just trying to get our foot in the door for some of those outstate funds," said Cottonwood Community Development Coordinator Charlie Seipel. "We're hoping it's a project that DEED feels worthy of putting out funding for. It would benefit our community greatly."
"I certainly think these communities should feel they have the same opportunity everybody else does," said Dahms. "We just have to wait and see."
"Obviously there's no shortage of projects," said Swedzinski, R-Ghent. "A lot of folks (in the Legislature) didn't even want to consider giving some of these projects a chance; at least this way they have a chance."
Dahms said the "verdict is still out" on the new program but said if it goes well it could be something that Minnesota residents see more of in the future. He said he doesn't believe legislators are shirking their responsibility by doing it this way and that this process creates a better playing field for every community who wants to apply for grant money.
"It should take more of the political atmosphere out of it and turn it into more of a requirement-type atmosphere," he said. "With that said, I don't have a problem making the decision with who should get bonding money. I hope people don't look at this as the Legislature and governor trying to avoid responsibility."