By Dean Urdahl
The most important news to come from the Capitol last week is that we finally worked out the last few details on an $886 million bonding bill. The conference committee worked for more than six weeks debating and settling differences between House and Senate priorities, but in the end I feel we agreed on a responsible bill that does a good job of funding state works projects.
I specifically want to mention four projects of local interest that I authored and successfully included in the bill. Two of them are part of our environmental and natural resources effort, including $500,000 to buy land for Greenleaf State Park and another $1 million for local parks. I also authored a $1 million grant for the Minnesota Historical Society that can be used to preserve local historic buildings.
Soybean aphids and other infestations harm agriculture and drive down farmers’ yields. To fight aphids and infestations, the bonding bill includes $3.3 million for a Joint Plant Pathology Research Facility at the University of Minnesota. The results taken from this facility will help farmers and, has I am about to show you, will be part of a significant investment in higher education.
This year’s bonding bill clearly establishes higher education as its top priority. With the University of Minnesota looking to establish itself as an elite research university, it needs the legislature’s support to make sure its facilities are top notch. I believe the $108 million for building preservation and renovation does that. But while the University of Minnesota gets most of the attention, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system deserves our support as well. The bonding bill funds all of MnSCU’s requests for a total of $213 million. Combined, higher education will receive more than $320 million. That is the most we have ever spent on higher education, but I think I speak for most legislators when I say it is definitely worth it.
Here is a look at other areas highlighted in this year’s bonding bill.
A total of $72 million goes to the natural resources budget. Much of it goes to flood mitigation, dam repairs and wild life acquisition. There are also several million dollars for state trail acquisition, state park development and statewide asset preservation. Some of this money could be used for the Lake Koronis Regional Park. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, CREP, is fully funded at $23 million.
More than half of the total transportation bonding - $50 million out of $92 million – goes to local bridge replacements and road improvement grants. Because we passed the bonding bill so early in the session, we should be able to take advantage of the full summer construction season and get started on many of these projects right away. I believe this is the most important section of the transportation bonding, but it won’t get the most attention. The controversial Northstar Commuter Rail will finally receive its full funding recommendation of $37.5 million. This project has been on our agenda since long before you sent me to the Capitol and whether you support it or not, it is good to see it finally resolved one way or the other.
Full funding of the Faribault prison expansion is the key to our corrections package. Minnesota faces a sever prison shortage in the immediate future and bonding for this expansion will allow us to stay ahead of our capacity for years to come. We also funded start up costs for a new 150-bed segregation unit at the Stillwater Prison and a new facility for sex offender programs.
I am glad we got this bill to the governor without further delay. May of the projects in this bill should already be completed and many more should have started last year. Unfortunately, the bonding bill often becomes a political football and good policy dies at the expense of political maneuvering.
This year, I recognized the message you sent us last fall: Get your work done. There were some attempts to delay this bill further, but I joined a bipartisan group of legislators to make sure this bill was not delayed one more day. I like the bill and what it does in identifying the needs of our state, and I am glad for Minnesota that construction crews will be able to higher thousands of jobs and put shovels in the ground very soon.