Editorial: Use state bonding dollars wisely

If you had a billion dollars to spend on any public project within Minnesota, what would you choose?

Would you spend $5 million to build a new security fence around the Shakopee prison, $500,000 for “pre-design” design, to improve and renovate historic Fort Snelling or $10 million to preserve public housing for low-income families?

Should $20 million go to Minneapolis to spruce up the Nicollet Mall? Or maybe $7 million for the sculpture garden, to help the spoon get its shine back?

How about $37 million for the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, $800,000 to restore the Carnegie Library in Bemidji, $5 million for an Asian carp barrier in Coon Rapids, or $3.1 million for a bike trail in Becker County?

These are all real projects submitted to the state department of finance to be included in the 2014 bonding bill.

Traditionally in Minnesota, the odd-numbered year is budget time for state lawmakers. They approve a two-year budget that covers revenues, expenses and all of the costs needed to keep our government running.

The even-numbered year – here we are, 2014 – is a bonding year. Bonding is a government word for borrowing money. Minnesotans borrow money to buy a car, a boat or a snowmobile. It’s the same thing. We take out a mortgage to buy a house or frivolously max out credit cards at 22 percent interest on things we don’t need.

Government can do the same – spend wisely, spend foolishly or choose to not spend at all.

The most recent state revenue report was quite good. The state is showing a surplus and might actually have a few extra million that can be put away for a rainy day.

So now, back to the question: Where would you spend a billion dollars?

Would you pick only projects within 10 miles of your home, so you personally could benefit? Would you concentrate all of the spending in the Twin Cities? Would you want to spread out the money, so everyone from Cambridge to Caledonia, from Lakeville to Little Falls, from Bloomington to Baudette, got a piece of the pie?

Would you place priority on projects that enhanced the safety of our residents? Or would you pick the projects based on entertainment and recreation? Would you favor dull but necessary projects such as correcting waste-water discharge issues? Or might you pick $8 million to build an arts center? Our state’s leaders will soon have to answer those questions.

The initial “wish list” included over $4 billion in project requests. Gov. Mark Dayton wanted to narrow the list to about $1 billion and his official recommendation came in just under that at $986 million.

As the 2014 legislative session approaches, the structure and composition of the project list will be a huge topic. Legislative leaders will bring at least two, if not four versions of the spending list into the debate. House Republicans will not have the same list as House Democrats. Senate Republicans and Democrats will differ from each other. All four groups may have lists totally different from the governor’s.

This is indeed a topic where each Minnesotan should send a message to his or her legislator, suggesting priorities and specific needs.
Is $1 billion about the right total? Or is it way too much? Should we borrow half that? Maybe you think we should go all out right now, while interest rates are low, and borrow a couple of extra billion dollars to fix dilapidated and dangerous rural bridges?

As an editorial board, we support one project whole-hardheartedly: Our incredibly beautiful State Capitol building, designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert, needs to be fully reconstructed and renovated so the building stands glorious and strong generations from now. We urge lawmakers to continue their bipartisan support and approve the $126 million needed to preserve our Capitol.

As for the many other worthy projects, we would offer these suggestions:

Projects that benefit the whole state should have priority over local-only requests.

Public safety needs to be high on the list – for example, bridges that are dangerous should be repaired or replaced.

Be practical, placing “needs” over “wants.” Can we afford to enhance an art center before we fix rotting walls at a state prison?

Finally, be frugal over fanciful. Our state and nation’s economy is still in recovery, we still see ups and downs in financial markets. Job growth continues, but yet many are unemployed.

How should we spend a billion dollars?


– An opinion from the ECM Publishers Editorial Board