The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 5, 2013

Our View: Don’t ignore St. Peter in any bonding plans

The Free Press

— As the 2013 Minnesota legislative session begins, one of the issues on the front burner will be bonding.

Even though last year saw approval for a proposed Viking stadium and a $600 million bonding bill, speculation is that Gov. Mark Dayton might push through a bonding proposal as high as $1 billion in an off-bonding year.

Some lawmakers are joining in that discussion. Projects mentioned most often include the three civic centers which were omitted from last year’s funding, another infusion of funds for sorely needed renovations to the State Capitol and improvements to the Governor’s Mansion. Also talked about was whether the Southwest Corridor light rail project in the cities will be funded.

House Speaker-elect Paul Thissen told Politics in Minnesota that his preference is to look at projects “that have already been vetted” such as the projects at the University of Minnesota and MnSCU campuses as well as the civic centers.

Thissen, while pointing out that interest rates are low, said those projects “are valuable projects that would create jobs — and create jobs not only in building them, but really are economic development tools in those communities.”

In the Senate, things are not looking as rosy for bonding. Senate Majority Leader-elect Tom Bakk told PIM, “My preference would be to get back on the normal bonding cycle, and do it in the even-numbered years” although he did leave open the option of funding for Capitol renovation and “emergency-type stuff.”

Surprisingly missing from these discussions is the vital safety work needed for the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center which should be considered an “emergency.”

The Minnesota Department of Human Services has pointed out significant concerns for patient and staff safety that can only be fixed with construction. Bonds also would help with additional sex offender spots on the campus.

The treatment center houses more than 230 patients in the Minnesota Security Hospital and a portion of the nearly 700 in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

Dayton, during a visit to the center earlier last year, said millions of dollars in renovations and expansions are needed to address “the obsolescence of the building and just the inappropriateness of it for a therapeutic program.”

He mentioned concrete walls and hard-edged fixtures that make it more dangerous when a patient attempts to hurt himself or others. The Security Hospital’s split level design also makes it more difficult for staff to monitor patients and to move them when they’re being disruptive, according to the department’s request for more than $100 million in upgrades over the next five years.

“They convinced me that the request … is even more urgent than I realized,” he said back then. There doesn’t appear to be as much urgency today.

There are good arguments for bonding this year. Interest rates are at historic lows and competition for construction bids would be fierce, pushing contractors to sharpen their pencils more.

But whether the state goes with a full-bore bonding bill or Bakk’s “emergency” bill, the treatment center should be front and center for the state. It is their obligation — just as the Capitol building and the Governor’s Mansion — and it should not be ignored.