The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 10, 2012

Dayton breathes new life into civic center funding

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

— Gov. Mark Dayton once again on Monday strongly endorsed having the state pay nearly half of Mankato’s proposed $31 million civic center expansion and upgrade, a project repeatedly rejected by a previous governor and legislatures.

Dayton initially said he would support the Mankato funding — and dollars for similar projects in Rochester and St. Cloud — during the 2013 legislative session, which begins next month. Moments later, though, Dayton suggested the civic center projects might have to wait until 2014 if there’s bad news in a key state revenue forecast in late February or early March.

“We’ll keep trying until we get ’em,” Dayton said of the three civic center projects. “Or until I leave — one or the other.”

The strong support of the first-term Democrat is a marked contrast to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who blocked previous attempts to include the Mankato project in state bonding bills — sometimes while agreeing to funding for arenas and civic centers elsewhere in the state.

Dayton’s strong support for the civic centers wasn’t enough during his first two years in office when Republicans controlled the House and Senate. Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers essentially washed their hands of the traditional legislative task of deciding which local projects to finance through the sale of bonds.

Instead, they set aside $47.5 million in a grant fund and assigned the commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development to choose between applicants from around the state. Ninety applications for nearly $300 million were received by DEED, and none of the three civic center projects — which alone totaled $49.5 million in requests — made the cut.

In a meeting organized by Forum Communications between state political reporters and state government’s top leaders, Dayton said he would likely propose a large bonding bill in the coming year. Traditionally, odd-numbered years are primarily dedicated to negotiating the state’s next two-year state budget, with the bonding bill worked out the following year.

But the governor said bonding is needed to continue overdue work to restore the crumbling state Capitol, and he would prefer to include other projects around the state to supplement the Capitol renovation.

“I think we’re almost required to (do a bonding bill in 2013) because of the need to put another round of bonding into the Capitol renovation if we’re going to want that project to go forward. Otherwise it grinds to a halt,” he said. “And I will have the three downtown economic development projects in Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato as part of that proposal.”

Using the state’s guideline for how much construction borrowing can be supported by revenue, as much as $1.3 billion in bonding could be done, Dayton said. He didn’t say how big of a bonding bill he would propose, but he mentioned a number of projects rejected in the 2012 bill — calling them “significant requests.”

Dayton acknowledged that legislative leaders will have to be agreeable to doing a sizable bonding bill this year — as opposed to waiting for 2014.

“The question is, do they want to do it all in 2013 or split it up?” he said. “... It needs to be a bipartisan bill, so whether we can reach that agreement and on what size I guess remains to be seen.”

Under the state constitution, a three-fifths majority in both the House and Senate is needed to pass a bonding bill because it involves borrowing. While Republicans had a rough election on Nov. 6 and lost their majorities in both houses, Democrats are short of 60 percent in either body.

“... They don’t need our votes to do what they want to do, with the exception of the bonding bill,” said Rep. Kurt Daudt, the incoming leader of the House Republican minority.

Neither Daudt nor Sen. David Hann, the incoming leader of Senate Republicans, ruled out a bonding bill in 2013.

But the Republicans, Dayton and the top legislative Democrats — House Speaker-designate Paul Thissen and incoming Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk — all said the state’s operational budget will be the first priority of the upcoming session.

Local officials have been seeking state funding for an upgrade of the civic center since 2007. While the details of the improvements have changed over the years, the idea of modernizing and expanding the facility has galvanized a local coalition that includes the Mankato City Council, area lawmakers, Minnesota State University hockey boosters and many business leaders.

The current proposal for a $31 million upgrade, with the state covering $14.5 million of the cost, would include a new auditorium on the Second Street side of the existing civic center. That extra space would allow the facility to compete for large conventions and also free up the current arena for more use by MSU’s men’s and women’s hockey teams — which would make the Verizon Wireless Center their home for all games and practices.

Improvements to the hockey arena are planned as well, including replacement of the dasher boards and ice-making equipment, new locker rooms and a training center for the MSU teams.

The bonding requests for civic center upgrades in Rochester and St. Cloud total $25 million and $10 million, respectively.