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  Tuesday January 27th, 2015    

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Dayton: 'yes' to WSU, 'no' to Louisa Street (01/19/2014)
By Chris Rogers
Governor Mark Dayton's approximately $1 billion bonding bill proposal is a mixed bag for Winona, local politicians say. Under the proposal, Winona State University (WSU) would receive $5.9 million for the first phase of its Education Village project; Southeast Technical College would get $1.7 million for classroom improvements, split between Red Wing and Winona; and the city of Winona would receive $400,000 for a heavy lift dock at the city port. However, the $4.2 million the city requested to fund half of the Louisa Street extension project was absent from the proposal.

"It's a disappointment," Mayor Mark Peterson said of the Louisa Street project. "It certainly doesn't mean that it couldn't happen, but it's certainly not very likely, and it would be an uphill battleto get it done."

"I thought we definitely would have seen that in the governor's proposal," Senator Jeremy Miller said. "I was shocked, actually. To me it's a project that makes sense; it's a good use of bonding dollars that would have a significant impact on the community and region."

Representative Steve Drazkowski criticized the governor's proposal for prioritizing the recreational over infrastructure needs. Louisa Street and other projects like it "are the type of road projects we should have in the bill," he added.

Representative Gene Pelowski praised Dayton's proposal for WSU and his proposed investments in higher education generally, but expressed disappointment about Louisa Street's absence. Still, he said, "there's always possibilities" for getting the project funded as part of a final bonding bill.

Peterson said it was too soon to talk about whether the city would pursue local funding instead, though he noted, "we have options." The current city Capital Improvement Plan calls for a $10 million local sales tax for the street extension, which would require a voter referendum. The city has also considered a Port Authority Industrial Development District bond for the project, which would be funded with local tax dollars but would not require voter approval. City Manager Judy Bodway said that seeking a sales tax referendum would not be the default plan if it is not included in a final bonding bill, but rather the council would need to decide what to do.

Dayton's proposal does include $20 million for local road improvements and economic development infrastructure grants for which local governments can compete. However, they are divided into three different statewide grant programs with totals of $10 million, $5 million, and $5 million each. Given that, "it's unlikely that one project would be funded to the tune of $4.2 million," Bodway said.

Peterson was happy to see the city port and WSU Education Village projects on the governor's list. The $400,000 for the city port will be used to construct a concrete cap along the dock bulkhead wall sturdy enough to support a heavy lift crane. If a crane were installed, it would make Winona one of the first ports on the Upper Mississippi with a heavy lift dock. That would open opportunities for shipping new types of commodities, said Port Authority Economic Development Director Lucy McMartin. McMartin said such a crane might be used to ship large, bulky parts, such as turbine blades.

First step for WSU Education Village

Under Dayton's proposal, WSU would receive $5.9 million for the design of its Education Village project and for demolition and remodeling work expected to take place on the second and third floors of Wabasha Hall (the former site of Cotter Schools). The $22 million total Education Village project would convert Wabasha Hall, the closed Cathedral Elementary School, and the Wabasha Recreation Center (the former John Nett Recreation Center) into a new College of Education campus that would pair programming for local schools and hands-on experience for education majors.

"We are looking to create this village or community that serves as both educator preparation [and] as a resource to Southeast Minnesota schools and communities," said WSU College of Education Dean Jan Sherman.

"With the Education Village, WSU has an opportunity to really transform how we deliver education in the state of Minnesota," said Senator Miller. He added, "If done correctly, I think this could be a model for the rest of the country to take a look at." Miller and Pelowski have been champions of the Education Village at the capitol.

It would be "a great first step," said WSU Vice President for Finance Scott Ellinghuysen of the Education Village funding included in Dayton's proposal. It would be even better if the governor had recommended full funding for the $22 million project, and "this is just the beginning" of the bonding bill debate, he said, noting the likelihood of projects being culled from Dayton's list. Ellinghuysen noted that the Education Village is 17th on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) priority list. "I would feel a lot better if we were second or third," he said. Still, "It's always a lot better to be on the governor's list than not," he added.

Proposal kicks off political process, exceeds agreement

Dayton's proposal is just the start of the political process that will produce this year's round of statewide, tax-funded borrowing. Legislators are expected to bring forward their own proposals at the beginning of the session next month. Republican support is needed for any bill to be successful since the bonding bill requires a three-fifths supermajority vote to pass, and the total cost of Dayton's proposal is hundreds of millions over the amount lawmakers agreed to last year. That may mean the Democratic majority in St. Paul will need to cut projects to reduce the total price or win over Republican votes by offering projects in conservative districts.

"I think there's a pretty good chance that there's going to have to be some trimming," Miller said of Dayton's project list. He predicted the final bonding amount would fall somewhere between Dayton's $1 billion proposal and the approximately $850 million total agreed to last year. "There's got to be some give and take there," he commented.

Democrats "agreed that we would stick to a bill that size [$850 million]," Representative Drazkowski said. "Are they going to honor what they said or basically break the promise that they made?"

A lot depends on February's fiscal forecast, Pelowski stated. If the state economic projections continue their upward trend, there may be a good argument for investing more now, especially on infrastructure, he commented. Spending on economic development infrastructure creates jobs during construction and afterward, as development occurs and businesses grow. "It's time to start those investments," he said.

Miller commented, "In order for a bonding bill to pass you need both Democratic and Republican votes, so naturally they'll be some politics being played to get a bill passed; right or wrong, that's the way the process works."

At a League of Women Voters forum last weekend, Representative Drazkowski called the bonding bill "the ugliest thing in the state legislature" and said that a more principled approach to spending was needed, one that focused on infrastructure needs rather than flashy projects in the districts represented by those whose support is needed to pass the bill. He added, "We have to continue to stand up and say no to the pork."

Drazkowski praised Dayton for including the capitol restoration project, but said, "this proposal is overflowing with unnecessary wants," including tens of millions for parks, zoos, theaters, and civic centers. Bonding is not "manna from heaven," it's tax money, Drazkowski pointed out. "The fastest growing part of the state budget is the repayment of our debt. We need to set priorities and not get into a spend fest here," he said.

Greater Minnesota in Dayton proposal

Dayton proposed $120.5 million in bonding for Greater Minnesota local governments, compared to $241.6 million for the metro area (including $126.3 million for the capitol restoration). More than half of the Greater Minnesota funding would go to Rochester, Mankato, and St. Cloud. Rochester's $37 million Mayo Civic Center expansion project would take a full 30 percent of proposed Greater Minnesota funding; another $14 million would go for an arena and events center in Mankato and $11 million for a convention center in St. Cloud.

Miller said he was supportive of Rochester's state-backed Destination Medical Center (DMC) project, but questioned whether civic centers in general should be funded through state bonding.

Winona City Council member Paul Double called Dayton's proposed metro area spending disproportionate and, while he, too, is supportive of Rochester's DMC project, he criticized the lack of regional investment as part of the project and the bonding proposal. "The bottom line is if this is a regional project that Mayo is encompassing, then we need to get a little more attention," he said.

Pelowski responded to that sentiment by pointing out that "Rochester is now the third largest community in the state, just [behind] Minneapolis and St. Paul, so [Rochester has] the numbers." He added, "Look at what's happened in our area with [the Pelzer Street] overpass, the new bridge the new bridge is a $145 million construction project; that's not exactly small change." 


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