A timely call for a Minnesota bonding bill

Published 9:54 am Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The old saw about timing being everything in politics has a state governing corollary: Timing in bonding for capital improvements can make a multimillion-dollar difference. The trick is to take advantage of low interest rates, favorable construction costs and adequate fiscal capacity for more debt service to build needed public facilities at a bargain price.

That’s why this page recommended large state bonding bills during the Great Recession years — advice that was not often heeded as the political appeal of austerity suppressed legislators’ appetites for a bargain.

The construction discount that was available during the downturn has ended. But interest rates remain low and the state’s debt capacity as measured by well-established guidelines remains ample. The trend in construction costs suggests that delay will cost more. That means now is still a good time for a sizable state bonding bill, and next year might not be as advantageous. Gov. Mark Dayton agrees. On Tuesday, the DFL governor sent a well-crafted $842 million bonding bill proposal to the Legislature — where it received a cool reception from the GOP-controlled House, which must originate bonding bills.

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“During the interim, the capital investment committee will properly vet these projects,” House bonding chair Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said in a release. That means he intends to send no bill to the House floor until 2016.

We would urge Torkelson to start his vetting now. If he does, he’ll find some projects that ought not wait. Who can read today’s headlines about avian flu in the state’s turkey population and not agree that better veterinary isolation labs at the University of Minnesota are needed ASAP? Who wants to tell the state’s growing population of homeless families with small children to wait another year for affordable housing? Or the cities — and potential employers — of Worthington, Magnolia and Pipestone that they must keep waiting for an adequate water supply via the Lewis and Clark regional water project? (We regret that Dayton’s list omits another urgent need — a facilities upgrade at the federally funded American Indian schools within the state.)

Other projects likely could wait — if the state is willing to eventually pay more or get less. But that’s not the usual preference of politicians who profess to be fiscally conservative, or of the people who elected them.

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