Still no decision from lawmakers on bridge fundingby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
State lawmakers have still not acted on a request by the Pawlenty administration for spending authority for the new I-35W bridge. A special panel of eight lawmakers met Tuesday and criticized the Minnesota Department of Transportation for signing a contract to build the bridge before the federal government has sent the money for the project. Several lawmakers also object to the size of the request and worry that they will give a disfunctional department too much money.
St. Paul, Minn. — The DFL-controlled Legislature and the Minnesota Department of Transportation have been at odds over transportation funding for years. But there has been a strange role reversal in the past few weeks.
DFLers are now questioning why MnDOT needs extra money, instead of trying to give the department more cash through a gas tax increase. MnDOT is asking for the authority to spend $195 million in state money to rebuild the bridge. They're making the request because the promised federal money has not come through.
The group ended the three-hour hearing without signing off on the proposal. Some lawmakers, like House Speaker Margaret Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, are worried about giving MnDOT too much money. She wants greater control over MnDOT's finances.
"If we signed off on $195 million right now, there would be no guarantee of increasing accountability," she said. "There would no way to pull back the veil of secrecy around the department, and we think we owe it to the public to do that."
Kelliher says she's frustrated that MnDOT officials have not been open with their budget or the total costs related to the bridge collapse. Hearings last week revealed that the agency is expected to run out of money by the end of next year, and that the total costs of the bridge collapse are $393 million, about $100 million more than earlier projected.
Kelliher says that's why lawmakers may give MnDOT only enough money to pay for the first phases of the bridge construction and keep the 2008 projects on schedule. MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau has threatened to cut some of those projects if the agency doesn't receive the spending authority.
Molnau took issue with Kelliher's assessment of the department's finances.
"We would not be here but for the emergency with the bridge. That's the only reason," Molnau said. "We programmed our program based on what we had, and were fiscally responsible in that respect. But when you add another $395 million dollar hit, obviously we can't do both."
The group's inaction is frustrating Republicans. Eight members of the House and Senate held a news conference blaming DFLers for polarizing the process.
Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, says he's worried that future federal money won't come through if the squabbling continues.
"It's time to move on," he said. "It's likely that we will need to go to the federal contingency again to get additional funds. But if we're horsing around here and can't approve the $195 million they said they were going to send us, how are we going to go to the table again and say, 'Gee, will you send us some more money?"
Several Democrats on the panel defended the process, saying they were doing due diligence on the funding. Others questioned the rush, especially after MnDOT already signed a contract to rebuild the bridge.
Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said he's worried that a precedent could be set if an eight-member panel gave MnDOT the authority to spend money that hasn't been delivered.
"For the long-term aspects of funding transportation, I think we need to be careful not to set a precedent where we -- over and over and over again -- make anticipations of money that is expected to come," he said. "You just have to be careful there."
Pogemiller says the group intends to meet with the state finance commissioner to see if they can agree on giving the department less money than requested. The group has not scheduled another meeting at this time.