DNR hosts Walz for bonding tour

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz asks questions of Department of Natural Resources officials at the agency's airbase at the Range Regional Airport on Monday morning. Walz was at the base gathering information about the needs of the area for the upcoming bonding session.

IRON RANGE — Touring proposed bonding projects has traditionally been left to state lawmakers, but this year, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is trying a new approach. He’s making the rounds himself.

Walz is the first governor in the state to make a tour of projects, starting last week in the Port of Duluth and continuing on Monday in Hibbing at the drill core library managed by the state Department of Natural Resources, as well as the airtanker base at Range Regional Airport.

“I’m adamant on making capital investments,” Walz said in an interview prior to the tour. “It makes incredible economic sense.”

Since taking office this past January, the governor has taken an approach to bonding that is outside the norms of state governments past. He proposed a bonding bill during the 2019 legislative session, an “off year” for bonding projects which are typically proposed in even years. The bill ultimately didn’t pass during an abbreviated special session.

Now, with eyes on a typical bonding year, Walz is undertaking the same methods he did as a member of Congress. The administration is setting up a website to detail all state bonding projects and include who is making the request, what the project is, cost, expected outcomes and the chance for the public to make comments. The goal, he said, is to make a transparent bonding process where people can understand the value of a request and create a more collaborative environment for local governments to move projects forward.

The website will be available through the Minnesota Management and Budget office.

“It’s our job to highlight why it matters,” Walz said. “They’re not requesting pork, they’re requesting real projects that make a difference.”

While the state currently has $5 billion in bonding requests, it’s being capped at $3 billion with Walz expected to put forth $1.5 billion in requests.

The two projects Walz toured Monday were part of $20 million worth of bonding requests from the DNR.

About $4 million of that is for the core library to add a second building, which would double the capacity of the site to a total of 6 million linear feet. The lone current building was last expanded in 2009.

Core samples are required by the Legislature to be submitted and kept by the DNR.

“This is not a warehouse,” said DNR assistant director Peter Clevenstine during the tour. “This is a library and we store so people can use it.”

The DNR is also requesting $9.5 million for wildfire aviation infrastructure: an air tanker base, hangar and helices facilities must be secure, safe, energy efficient, and provide the space needed for operations personnel and aircraft pilots and crews to allow DNR to effectively respond to wildfire and support enforcement needs.

In Hibbing, the base ramp would cost $2 million to replace current aircraft staging and access areas as the current ramp is decaying and almost inoperable, reducing weight capacity and compromising safety.

Project engineering is 90 percent complete. There’s also $3 million in building requests to replace existing mobile home units here with new facility to accommodate up to 30 people for briefing, dispatch, crew readiness, storage, and pilot rest areas.

The total request also includes a $2 million Grand Rapids hangar and helibase and a $2.5 million Brainerd air tanker base.

“This is a case of asset preservation,” Walz said.

The governor was joined on the airport tour by DNR wildlife section manager Paul Lundgren, a DNR wildlife section manager; Darren Neuman, a wildlife aviation supervisor for the DNR; airport manager Shaun Germolus; State Reps. Julie Sandstede and Dave Lislegard; Sen. David Tomassoni and Hibbing City Councilor Jennifer Hoffman-Saccoman.

Lundgren and Neuman pointed out the “fairly wide cracks” on the ramp that can no longer support multi-million aircrafts, while Germolus called the pavement “unacceptable” and “failing,” while a pilot pointed out that he nearly rolled his ankle in a crack recently.

“I’m thrilled the governor came to the Iron Range to look at the DNR’s drill core library and the airtanker base in Hibbing with hundreds of bonding requests put forth,” Sandstede said of the tour. “Obviously, these are crucial to our area … We need a robust bonding budget.”

Eric Killelea reported from Hibbing. Jerry Burnes reported from Virginia.

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