ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democrats who control the Legislature began the session Thursday by unveiling a $1 billion plan to fix up college buildings, build civic centers, forge trails and upgrade airports.
The proposal sets up an opening-round fight with GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty over how much the deficit-challenged state can afford to borrow in bad times. It's part of the Democrats' strategy to work first on creating jobs, leaving a $1.2 billion budget shortfall to deal with later.
``There's a sale going on out there, and this is the time to bond and build,' said Sen. Keith Langseth, who said Minnesota can't afford to miss out on low interest rates and construction prices.
Democrats are hurrying to put a bill on Pawlenty's desk this month.
The Senate Capital Investment Committee that Langseth leads voted to approve a roughly $1 billion construction projects bill later Thursday, under a fast-track process that could have the full Senate passing the bill by Tuesday. House Democrats aim to put their so-called bonding bill up for a vote by Feb. 15.
``We don't want to blow this construction season,' said Rep. Alice Hausman, who leads the House public works panel.
Hausman's bill would top Pawlenty's $685 million proposal while leaving out two of his priorities: an $89 million expansion of the state sex offender treatment complex in Moose Lake and $53 million for a new physics and nanotechnology building at the University of Minnesota.
Colleges are the big winners in the Senate bill. That plan also excludes the treatment center while setting aside millions for civic centers, sports complexes and arts facilities. Pawlenty has said those shouldn't be priorities.
Another major construction project, a new Vikings stadium, was far from the starting line. Democrats were lukewarm on ideas Pawlenty floated a day earlier to help pay for a football arena, including creating a new lottery game and capturing taxes generated by a new facility.
``There's no way that that can proceed without the governor taking the lead,' said Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis. ``And if he is willing to do that, at least on the Senate side we're willing to talk about it. I thought what he said yesterday was, `I have ideas but I'm not proposing anything.' I think he needs to propose something.'
Items that made Hausman's bill included $338 million for classrooms, labs and other upgrades on Minnesota State Colleges and Universities campuses across the state; $59 million for civic centers in Rochester, Mankato and St. Cloud; $33 million for music venues in Minneapolis and St. Paul; and $4 million for the National Volleyball Center in Rochester.
Hausman said the civic centers alone would put paychecks in the pockets of more than 1,000 construction workers.
Republicans knocked the proposal for its size and its omissions, particularly the sex offender treatment facility.
``We've got money for civic centers, volleyball courts, just about every other civic-minded thing, but we're not locking up violent sex offenders,' said House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.
In the Senate, Republican Geoff Michel was critical of the rapid pace and the priorities.
``Volleyball? Another convention center? Those aren't careers. Those aren't industries. We're not going to come out of recession because we build another dormitory,' said Michel, of Edina. ``Our state is broke. Our taxpayers are shrieking. This is piling on more debt at the wrong time.'
Pawlenty has threatened to reject the entire bill if it's too large for his taste, instead of using his authority to trim it with line-item vetos. Spokesman Brian McClung said the governor looks forward to an ``affordable and responsible' package.
Also Thursday, several hundred students, politicians, spiritual leaders and other activists filled the Capitol rotunda to rally for a subsidized health care program scheduled to end in April as part of Pawlenty's budget cuts from last year. The General Assistance Medical Care program covers more than 30,000 low-income adults.
``This program is so important for people who can't afford health care,' said 22-year-old student Gabriella Raspa, a diabetic who used to get her medication covered by the program. ``These people deserve health care just like everyone else.'
In the Senate, Republican Sen. Mike Parry of Waseca was sworn in to represent a southern Minnesota district. Parry won a special election last month for the seat long held by Republican Dick Day, who resigned to lobby for state-backed racetrack gambling.
The Legislature is constitutionally required to adjourn by May 17.