Share story

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill Wednesday authorizing almost $1.5 billion in public construction projects scattered across Minnesota, salvaging one piece of an otherwise rather unproductive session of the Legislature.

Despite concern from environmental groups about the bill’s usage of a voter-approved trust fund and Dayton’s own reservations about the legislation, the Democratic governor approved all but one project in the package. He used his line-item veto to nix $1 million for a review of the state’s water regulations, saying it would add “an unnecessary new layer of bureaucracy” to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Still, Dayton criticized the bill he signed, saying it didn’t provide enough in upkeep for state universities and college campuses, left mass transit projects unfunded and shortchanged other projects across Minnesota.

“It is seriously unresponsive to the urgent needs for capital investments in new, old, and very old public facilities throughout our state,” Dayton wrote in a letter to legislative leaders.

Dayton’s signature of the so-called bonding bill comes a week after he took down both a massive budget package — with funding for school safety improvements and opioid abuse prevention efforts as well as unrelated policy measures — and a bill with modest tax cuts for most Minnesotans. It leaves just one final piece of legislation on Dayton’s desk: a bill shoring up public worker pension accounts that Dayton plans to sign Thursday.

Bonding bills are politically popular, providing lawmakers with new projects to tout as they head to the campaign trail. This year’s bill emerged in the final hours of the legislative session that ended at midnight on May 20, with Republicans tapping into several different funds to add more projects and win Democratic votes.

The bill borrows a total of $1.5 billion to pay for $133 million in water and sewer projects across the state, $544 million for road and bridge repairs and $32 million to build three new veterans homes. It also provides $90 million to expand affordable housing options, $25 million for schools to enhance their security and another $90 million for the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to fix ailing buildings.

“It’s big enough to make a significant difference in Minnesotans’ lives, but not so big to put future budgets at risk,” GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a statement.

The bill uses $98 million from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, a fund approved by voters in 1998 that’s governed by a semi-independent state commission. That funding source emerged in the final hours at the Legislature, and environmental groups called on Dayton to veto it.

Dayton said he wanted to cancel out that provision, saying it could set a harmful precedent, inviting lawmakers to continue raiding the fund. But he said he couldn’t do so without also axing important wastewater infrastructure projects.

“It was unwise, but it was shrewd,” Dayton said of the maneuver.