City secures state bonding for key projects
A new Minnesota Twins stadium may have occupied much of the limelight during this year's legislative session, but Minneapolis really scored big when it came to the bonding bill.
A long list of projects in the city received funding in what several legislators touted as one of the best bonding bills in years for Minneapolis.
The Shubert Theater on Hennepin Avenue, the city's top bonding priority, received $11 million. Other bonding projects include: the Lowry Avenue Corridor, which received $5 million; the MacPhail Music Center, $5 million; the Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), $18 million; the I-35W bus rapid-transit station at 46th Street, $3.3 million; the Cedar Lake Bike Trail, $1.8 million; and the Lake of the Isles restoration project, $3.2 million. And those are just the highlights.
“Minneapolis did pretty darn well this legislative session,” said Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-60A). “This was really an outstanding year for Minneapolis on a number of fronts.”
In addition to the bonding bill, members of the Minneapolis delegation also played key roles in getting a mercury-reduction bill passed, securing $1.5 million in public safety money for the city, getting additional funding for summer jobs for youth, pushing through legislation on plug-in hybrid car technology and working out a plan for the ailing Minneapolis teachers' pension fund.
But a number of issues many Minneapolis legislators considered top priorities were left unresolved. While Republicans and DFLers tried to work together to get more things done than they have in the past several years - undoubtedly due in large part to the fact that all 201 legislators in both chambers are up for reelection this fall - they could not agree on a measure for permanent property tax relief or funding for mass transit.
Sen. Jane Ranum (DFL-63) said although the working relationship between Democrats and Republicans was markedly improved this year compared to the past three years, it is still not at the level of bipartisan cooperation that existed when she entered the Legislature 16 years ago.
“It's not at the level it should be,” said Ranum, who is not running for reelection this fall and will return to her job as a Hennepin County prosecutor.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-59B) said relationships at the Capitol weren't good this year - they just weren't as bad as other years.
“It may be that this is just the first time that we weren't moving backward,” Kahn said. “For all the good feelings, there is a sense of frustration. It's just like pleasure is sometimes the absence of pain. That might be what this year was like.”
Rep. Keith Ellison (DFL-58B), who is running as the DFL-endorsed candidate for Martin Sabo's U.S. House of Representatives seat, also felt that while legislators were civil and managed to reach consensus on a number of issues, many things were left unresolved.
“I think, unfortunately, it takes an upcoming election cycle for everyone to behave themselves,” Ellison said.
Some Minneapolis legislators also expressed frustration that so much time and energy was spent on working out the details of new stadiums for the Twins and the University of Minnesota's Gophers football team.
“I think this will be the session that will be remembered as we spent time on the Twins rather than some of the broader issues,” Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) said, adding that he wanted to see the Legislature spend money on priorities like education and health care before new ballparks.
But Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL-58) said this was a bonding year and legislators didn't have the ability to fund big-ticket items like education, transportation and health care in a substantial way.
“This was not a budget year, only a supplemental year,” Higgins said. “We didn't have big amounts of money to put toward education and transportation, so we kind of had to work around the edges.”
Councilmember Betsy Hodges (13th Ward), chair of the City Council's Intergovernmental Relations Committee, said, overall, she was pleased with what Minneapolis will get as a result of this legislative session. Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-63A) agreed, noting that legislators can address things that didn't get passed in next year's session.
“I think that it kind of sets a base for us to build on in a true budget year,” Thissen said.
But a number of Minneapolis projects that were part of the $1 billion capital improvements bill won't have to wait until next year to receive funding.
Six years after the Shubert Theater was moved to its new location Downtown at 5th Street and Hennepin Avenue, it received the funding needed to refurbish it and connect it by atrium to the Hennepin Center for the Arts. With the bonding money, the Shubert Theater now has slightly more than two-thirds of its $37 million goal. The Legislature's investment will help not only in paying for construction, but also in showing people that the project is a serious endeavor, said Shubert Theater Director Kim Motes. Another arts complex, the MacPhail Music Center, received $5 million to construct a new facility.
MCTC also received funding totaling $18 million for a renovation project that will add spaces and laboratories for science, nursing and health-care programs. Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60) said it was important for the Legislature to invest in the Downtown college, which he called an “amazing little jewel where the American Dream happens.”
Another of the city's jewels, the Lake of the Isles, received a total of $3.2 million for shoreline stabilization and restoration. And the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, which circles the city and highlights the Downtown riverfront district and the Chain of Lakes area in Southwest, received $250,000. The Cedar Lake Trail also received $1.8 million for completion.
And while it wasn't a budget year, transportation and roadway projects weren't left in the dust. The Legislature earmarked $5 million for capital improvements to the Lowry Avenue Corridor from Theodore Wirth Parkway to Girard Avenue. A bus rapid-transit station at 46th Street and I-35W also received $3.3 million. Mass transit projects received some serious cash as well. The Northstar Commuter Rail that will run from Big Lake to Downtown Minneapolis received $60 million, the Central Corridor transit project that will link the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul received $7.8 million and the Red Rock Corridor transit project that will link Hastings and Minneapolis received $500,000 for preliminary engineering and environmental review.
But despite the millions of dollars Minneapolis received through the bonding bill, this will undoubtedly be remembered as the year the Minnesota Legislature approved two new stadiums that will be constructed in the city.
The Minnesota Twins received the Legislature's approval on a $522 million open-air stadium after more than a decade of off-and-on legislative debate. The University of Minnesota also got the green light on a $248 million on-campus football stadium.
Plans for development plans around the Twins stadium would drastically change the western edge of Downtown. In addition to the construction of the 42,000-seat stadium on the 8-acre “Rapid Park” site between the Target Center and the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, developers plan to create a new neighborhood that would include a transit hub for light rail, the proposed Northstar Corridor commuter rail line and bus services, along with a bike trail and thousands of living and retail units on a 26-acre site.
But the new stadium will come at a price to Hennepin County residents. The ballpark will be funded largely through a 0.15 percent sales tax in Hennepin County, which will amount to three cents on every $20 purchase. The bill gives Hennepin County permission to raise its sales tax through an exemption to a state requirement that voters approve the local tax increase through a referendum. The sales tax is expected to raise $392 million for the county's share of the ballpark. Twins owner Carl Pohlad will contribute the remaining $130 million.
Of the total $522 million cost for the stadium, $390 million will go toward the construction of the ballpark, $90 million for infrastructure and $42 million for financing.
Most Minneapolis legislators did not support the plan for the new Twins stadium. Ranum said she opposed it because it is a statewide asset that only Hennepin County taxpayers will be paying for - without even the benefit of a referendum. She also said she can't support public funding for new stadiums when core areas like education are consistently under funded.
“I love sports, but we have schools that don't have enough text books,” Ranum said.
The four Minneapolis legislators who supported the stadium were Thissen, Higgins, Anderson Kelliher and Sen. Wes Skoglund (DFL-62). Like Ranum, Skoglund has announced he will not seek re-election this fall.
Anderson Kelliher said she supported the stadium because it is a large investment in Downtown that will draw in more families and other visitors who will spend money and, by creating a greater presence on the streets, help keep Downtown safer.
“I do think that having an open-air ballpark in Downtown in the North Loop area is a very good thing for Downtown Minneapolis,” Anderson Kelliher said.
Many of the legislators also pointed out that while parts of the stadium bill aren't perfect, it will generate money for Hennepin County and Minneapolis. The entertainment tax on the tickets will generate an estimated $3 million a year for additional police protection around the facility and some $2 million a year to go toward youth activities and expanded library hours.
“It's not an ideal bill, but it's the bill that could get done,” Thissen said.
City secures money for public safety
Aside from the bonding bill and stadiums, legislators also passed several other key bills. Minneapolis will get $1.5 million in public safety money that will be used to increase police patrols. That money is part of the $2 million Gov. Tim Pawlenty promised to Minneapolis officials following two high-profile murders in Uptown and Downtown. Ranum said she's also pleased that in addition to that, the city is receiving $200,000 for additional crime-watch cameras, as well as money for youth intervention programs.
Dibble led the charge on getting a mercury-reduction law passed that requires the state's largest coal-fired power plants to cut mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2015.
“This was a very difficult bill to shepherd and a difficult compromise to reach,” Dibble said, adding that he was “extremely pleased” with the end result.
Legislators also passed a bill that merged the financially ailing Minneapolis teachers pension fund with the statewide teachers retirement fund.
“It solved a huge problem,” said Thissen, who worked closely on the bill. “On of the things with working on this issue is that I heard from a lot of teachers out there who would be left without a retirement. People were staying up at night worrying about this.”
A bill authored by Hornstein that promotes the production of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles also passed.
The things that didn't get done
Republicans and Democrats debated throughout the session about how to cut property taxes, which are expected to increase an average of 11 percent this year. In the end, they couldn't come to an agreement on any significant property tax relief. They did, however, pass legislation that will provide modest income tax relief for married couples filing joint returns and middle-income Minnesotans who pay the “alternative minimum tax.” Still, most Minneapolis legislators agreed it wasn't enough.
“I thought the two most important things we needed to deal with in this legislative session were a very good bonding bill and property tax relief,” Anderson Kelliher said. “And I prefer permanent property tax relief so the fact that in the end there was no property tax relief is something that we're going to have to come back and deal with again next year.”
Legislators also were unable to come to an agreement on additional money for mass transit. A proposal in the Senate would have used a seven-county metrowide sales tax to fund new stadiums for the Minnesota Twins and Vikings as well as mass transit. But a stadium conference committee rejected that plan, separating the Twins and Vikings proposals and sending the mass-transit bill to another conference committee, where legislators couldn't reach an agreement before the end of the session.
Kahn also attempted to get legislation passed that would prevent a government shutdown if the Legislature doesn't meet its constitutional deadline. It also didn't get through during this session.
“This is amazing, because we had solid support for this in the House and solid support for another version of it in the Senate,” Kahn said.
She said other states have legislation that allows their elected officials to keep working after their deadline.
“This is such a male macho idea that you need pressure to come to a decision,” Kahn said.
There were also some things that legislators were relieved to see fail. Hornstein puts legislation regarding same-sex marriage, abortion and illegal immigrants under the heading of “bad ideas we have to stop.”
Supporters of a ban on same-sex marriage and its legal equivalent want a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall. Minnesota already has a law prohibiting same-sex marriage. But Republican Sen. Michele Bachmann of Stillwater, the leading proponent of the constitutional amendment, maintains it's necessary to pass this measure to prevent the courts from overturning the state's existing law. This year's legislative battle over the issue was intense, but it didn't make it through the Legislature.
“That was a tremendous achievement. Tremendous,” said Dibble, the Senate's leading opponent of the amendment and one of two openly gay senators. “There was a big chance that that was going to happen.”
A bill that would eliminate taxpayer-funded abortions and require recordkeeping on when judges allow minors to have abortions without consent passed the House but was blocked in the Senate. Legislators also rejected any measures that would have cracked down on illegal immigration.
“There was very effective grassroots organizing on all three of these issues,” Hornstein said.
Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 436-4373.