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Bonding bill must fund critical infrastructure ahead of fun stuff

With the 2020 Minnesota legislative session set to convene Feb. 11, it’s good that Gov. Tim Walz is putting forth a detailed bonding proposal. After all, legislative tradition in even-numbered years (also known as election years … ahem) dictates the Legislature and governor draft and pass a bonding bill.

The DFL governor’s $2.03 billion proposal coupled with about $600 million worth of projects funded by other sources certainly gives legislators — and all Minnesotans — a lot to ponder until regular-session adjournment May 18.

Not surprisingly, Republican legislative leaders have quickly labeled Walz’s proposal as too expensive. While they are not necessarily wrong, they should follow up that criticism soon with their own detailed proposal.

Minnesota voters deserve that kind of transparency. Remember, though, legislative tradition also dictates a final bonding bill seldom comes fully into public view until the last days, even hours, of a session.

With that in mind, there is one guiding principle legislators and the governor should apply as they wheel-and-deal their way to a final proposal: Focus on critical infrastructure.

Things like sewer pipes and railroad crossings certainly are not as sexy as community centers and ice arenas, but the truth is they are much more important to not just the recipient communities, but to preserving resources and protecting all Minnesotans.

That’s why requests for state aid aimed at maintaining or replacing such infrastructure should be top priority — especially for outstate communities where residential growth is not enough (or nonexistent) to fully fund such projects.

Look no farther than the city of Foley, which sought $10 million to help cover $22 million worth of wastewater upgrades, including connecting Foley to St. Cloud’s sewage treatment system.

The governor said no to this and many other similar requests from outstate cities ranging from Melrose to Buhl.

Yet his proposal spends $5 million on a Litchfield community center, $8.4 million on snow-making equipment at Giants Ridge, $9.5 million on an aquatics center in Moorhead and $15 million on a community center for Plymouth, a fast-growing Twin Cities suburb.

While worthy and of benefit to those communities, how are any of those projects more critical than fixing outdated or ailing wastewater plants?

And, yes, that same logic applies to local projects like the $12.15 million Walz wants to provide for a $24 million upgrade of the Municipal Athletic Complex or $4 million for St. Joseph’s $16 million Jacob Wetterling Recreation Center. We’d like to see those projects succeed, but first things first.

The governor says his plan spends $631 million on preserving state assets (think buildings) and balances choices with 22% of his projects being outside the Twin Cities, 27% in the Cities and 51% “having a statewide impact.”

Interestingly, he puts comparatively small amounts of bonding and other funds toward transportation — noting the Legislature last session rejected his 20-cents-gallon gas tax increase and stressing now it must find another solution instead of simply ignoring those funding challenges.

And to his credit, Walz fully funds the $150 million request from Minnesota State for preserving and improving its campuses. And he puts $20 million toward $600 million worth of deferred maintenance for Department of Corrections facilities.

Sill, with so many needs for so many projects critical to fundamental public services across the state, it’s hard to grasp why about half of his bonding bill pays for projects that are more about recreation, entertainment and tourism than basic infrastructure.

Knowing that — and hearing Republican leaders talk about a proposal worth half this much — it certainly will be interesting to see how the Legislature reaches the three-fifths super-majority required to pass borrowing bills.

–St. Cloud Times

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