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Jerry Dahl: Minnesota’s bonding cap needs to be raised

ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton last week urged Minnesota legislators to bust past their self-imposed, bipartisan ceiling on funding public works statewide.

Earlier in the week, House Capitol Investment Chair Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, called her own bill “inadequate” and added later that she agreed with Dayton’s criticism, saying her original $1.24 billion bonding bill had to be slashed because of the agreed-upon cap.

We’ll be the first to admit, a deal is a deal. But deals can be renegotiated — and that’s what we believe should happen here.

Because we have the capacity, because the needs are so great, and because we’ve deferred the cost of addressing statewide infrastructure needs over so long a time, we urge legislative leaders to think twice about the limitations imposed by the $850 million bonding limit agreed to last year.

What do we mean by deferred projects? Here’s a small sample of the large and growing ($4 billion) backlog of infrastructure funding needs the bonding committees must sort through and fund within the $850 limit:

  •  The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has identified $715 million in current asset preservation needs alone, and 17 of their building projects on the current list are reruns that didn’t get funded in previous years.
  •  There are 698 projects on the Clean Water and Drinking Water priority list, with a total estimated cost of $1.7 billion.
  •  The backlog for Port Development Assistance funding, which is critical to helping Midwest corn and bean producers maintain leadership in world grain markets, is $25.6 million.
  •  The backlog for Local Bridge Replacement is 706 bridges with a total of $102 million in bond funds needed.
  •  In 2012, the total demonstrated need for the Local Road Improvement Program — the 10-ton farm to market road system critical to Minnesota farmers and foresters and to congestion relief and highway safety in the cities and regional centers — was $282 million.

That $282 million in project needs competed for just $10 million in 2012 allocated funding.

That’s why we could sympathize with the comments of Senate Capitol Investment Chair, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, who said after hearing transportation experts describe hundreds of millions in unmet local road and bridge needs to a hushed committee last week, “You kind of don’t know where to start — it’s so overwhelming.”

We are encouraged to hear that Stumpf will focus his attentions on transportation needs as he puts the Senate bill together over the next couple of weeks.

Stopgap programs such as the Local Road Improvement Program have taken on greater meaning over the years as costs have risen against traditional highway funding revenues that simply have not kept pace.

We hope Minnesota legislative leaders can reconsider the agreement they made on the $850 million cap on the Capitol Investment bill this year, and that Stumpf funds transportation needs to the highest possible level.

Dahl is a Mahnomen County (Minn.) commissioner and the chairman of the Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus.

The caucus represents 29 rural counties and is the only membership organization advocating specifically for Greater Minnesota counties.