With bonding bill, Austin has shot at flood mitigation funding

Published 7:11 am Thursday, February 18, 2010

Depending on what happens at the Minnesota Legislature, the Austin area could see a large influx of money to help with flood prevention, an issue local legislators said is the top priority for the area this session.

However, the front step of the Capitol is where uncertainty kicks in. That funding would come from a state bonding bill, legislation that typically supports a wide array of capital improvement projects. The state House and Senate both recently passed their versions of the bill, but reconciling with the more conservative Gov. Tim Pawlenty will ultimately decide the bill’s fate — and the fate of local flood projects.

“There are some differences,” Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, said, “but hopefully, overall, we can come to a compromise.”

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Before legislative leaders attempt to compromise with the Republican governor, they must first work out differences between House and Senate versions through a conference committee, which has recently started to meet on the bill. That process, however, doesn’t appear to be too daunting and could be complete by the end of the month, Sparks and Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said.

This is largely because the two bills are similar in size — the Senate approved a bonding package that checked in at a little less than $1 billion, while the House passed a version that was around $1.1 billion.

Under both plans, Austin would stand a good shot at getting the $1.875 million it requests for various flood mitigation projects, a number that would be matched via the city’s local-option sales tax.

Each bill also designates $2 million to be split between the Cedar River and Turtle Creek watersheds for wetland projects that would help combat flooding by turning marginal farmland into areas that better absorb flowing water.

Sparks and Poppe said securing both flood mitigation dollars and wetland restoration dollars is important because the components can work together to keep rising water from becoming a problem locally. Poppe called the approach “comprehensive” because it addresses water problems at various points along the Cedar River, not just in Austin.

“They kind of go hand-in-hand,” Sparks said of the two projects.

But it’s unclear at this point how much of the proposed funding will survive past the governor’s desk. Pawlenty has said he wants to see a bonding bill closer to $685 million, and he could line-item veto parts of the bill presented to him by the Legislature that he deems unworthy.

Poppe said she is fairly confident flood mitigation dollars will remain intact because governors typically support “disaster” related funding. Whether the wetland restoration money will be tagged “disaster” funding is a good question, the representative added.

If flood funding isn’t slashed, the governor may instead turn to items like the Shooting Star and Blazing Star trails. The two area pathways, which are maintained by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, would receive money from both House and Senate bills. But Sparks said he wouldn’t be surprised if that funding was vetoed.

“I think that’s something we’re going to have to watch,” he said.

Even if the governor brings down the total of the final bonding bill, both local legislators said they were fairly confident that Austin would get the flood money it desires.

“I still think we’ll be pretty good,” Sparks said. “Obviously, we can’t say for sure … We can’t decide what the governor will do.”

City engineer Jon Erichson said he also feels fairly confident that Austin will get the requested funding.

“I think our project was very well received,” Erichson said of the legislative response to the city’s proposal.

History also bodes well for Austin. In 2008, the last time there was a state bonding bill, the city asked for and received $3.2 million toward flood mitigation. But Erichson said he tries not to read too much into anything before a bill passes.

“We don’t get our hopes way up and then way down,” he said.

Erichson and others should know the fate of the bonding bill soon. If it can get through the conference committee by the end of the month as Sparks and Poppe predicted, funding could be dispersed in time for projects to break ground this spring and summer. That was the reason the Legislature got both bills going so quickly — the current session only started on Feb. 4 — but these plans, of course, are subject to how Pawlenty reacts to the proposal that hits his desk.

“That’s sometimes when it becomes more of a political issue than a policy issue,” Poppe said.