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Duluth's DECC renovation, including new WCHA arena, makes bonding bill

DULUTH -- The Minnesota Senate's bonding proposal passed a key committee Tuesday night with one big prize for Duluth, but without another project that was described as a top priority for the city.

DULUTH -- The Minnesota Senate's bonding proposal passed a key committee Tuesday night with one big prize for Duluth, but without another project that was described as a top priority for the city.

The proposal from the Senate Capital Investment Committee includes $40 million for an expansion of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, but it does not include money to build sewage overflow storage basins.

The DECC project now has made it onto both Gov. Tim Pawlenty's bonding list and the Senate's. The House has yet to compile its version of a public works plan, known as a bonding bill.

Last legislative session, bonding money for the DECC expansion seemed tantalizingly close, but ultimately went down when Pawlenty vetoed the bonding bill, calling it too expensive. This year local leaders are hoping for a better outcome for the project.

Andy Peterson, director of public policy for the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, said if the bonding matter can be settled quickly without becoming a political sticking point, the DECC expansion might come to fruition.

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"The planets are lining up," he said. "We just need to make sure we see the eclipse."

Peterson said the project needs area legislators to help shepherd its bonding money into reality and Duluth Mayor Don Ness to lobby for it successfully.

"Everyone has to play their cards right from here on in," he said.

State Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon said this might be the DECC's year, though she's far from banking on it.

"The governor is saying it's a priority, we're saying it's a priority, the House is saying it's a priority," she said. "The stars are in our favor."

But Prettner Solon remembers the past can't-miss chances that did.

"We were in the same spot last year. We passed the bill and the governor vetoed it," Prettner Solon said. "I'm very optimistic, but I was very optimistic last year and the year before."

Committee Chairman Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, however, rejected the Duluth City Council's No. 1 bonding request.

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Council members put sewer overflow storage basins, which would cost the state $12.75 million, at the top of their priority list, trumping the long-sought DECC addition.

"There is more to Minnesota than Duluth," Langseth said of why he left out the basin project.

Duluth did come away with $10 million for a civil engineering addition at the University of Minnesota Duluth and $7.3 million for a Lake Superior Community and Technical College health science addition.

Overall, the Democrat-led Senate wants to spend more money on college building renovation and other public works projects than the governor, saying success in passing a transportation funding bill freed money for projects they otherwise could not afford.

The bill would borrow $965 million, the same as Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. When combined with cash expenditures, both proposals top $1 billion.

The biggest difference between the Langseth bill and Pawlenty's proposal is the governor proposed to borrow $416 million for transportation projects, especially local bridge replacements. But Langseth said that is not needed after lawmakers Monday overturned a Pawlenty veto and passed a $6.6 billion, 10-year transportation funding bill.

"The $50 million we have got in the transportation bill for local bridges takes care of all the structurally deficient bridges," Langseth said.

House Minority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said that including money for local bridges in the transportation bill means some projects Pawlenty left out of his public works proposal -- to make way for bridge funding -- now will be available for other uses.

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But Pawlenty said Tuesday that he wants to keep his transportation figure intact, although he said he is open to a compromise on the issue.

The governor said the $965 million overall bonding figure is bound to shrink. He said he is braced for "bad news" Thursday when his Finance Department issues a new report expected to show a growing state budget deficit.

Langseth said his bill will be ready for a full Senate vote next week. Sertich said he also hopes the House can vote on its as-of-yet-unannounced plan next week.

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The Duluth News Tribune and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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