Road projects rest on dispute between the governor and Legislature
ST. PAUL -- It's either a technicality or an illegality. The fate of road and bridge construction projects across Minnesota de-pends on the decision. Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants a legislative committee to rubber stamp what he calls a routine request ...
ST. PAUL -- It's either a technicality or an illegality.
The fate of road and bridge construction projects across Minnesota de-pends on the decision.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants a legislative committee to rubber stamp what he calls a routine request to allow his administration to spend more money than planned in wake of the Aug. 1 Minneapolis bridge collapse.
"It is nothing more than a technicality," he said Tuesday.
However, Sen. Steve Murphy called Pawlenty's request unorthodox and illegal.
Legislative lawyers are looking into the legality question, but Senate Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party senators say it appears Pawlenty's request is illegal because he seeks approval to spend money the state does not yet have.
Pawlenty wants approval to spend $195 million more than lawmakers have authorized to replace the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed near downtown Minneapolis on Aug. 1. In a special session earlier this month, lawmakers approved $55 million.
The $250 million is supposed to be repaid by Washington, but Congress has yet to appropriate the money -- and controversy surrounds the issue there.
In any case, Pawlenty said he needs authority to spend the $250 million or he has no choice but to delay other projects. Transportation officials say they have not drawn up a list of projects that could be delayed, but more than 200 are pending.
The Republican governor said there will be no need to delay any of those projects if legislative leaders agree to his plan.
"We had near hysteria from some legislators," the governor said.
Murphy, a Red Wing resident and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and other Democratic legislators said the real issue goes beyond the legality of Pawlenty's request. It goes to the question of whether the Minnesota Department of Transportation is being fiscally well managed. Murphy pointed out a half-dozen road construction projects that have drawn controversy in recent years.
"We honestly don't know what is going on inside the Department of Transportation," said House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm.
House and Senate leaders are convening a meeting Monday to deal with the bridge funding issue, but they are expected to ask other financial-related questions, too. They invited the governor and his transportation and finance officials to testify.
A recently enacted law gives the group meeting on Monday power to approve or reject Pawlenty's request. Murphy could not say if the panel will vote Monday, but said a public meeting is needed to discuss the issue.
One question committee members said they will ask is why Pawlenty earlier said no legislative action on the bridge reconstruction would be needed until next year and now he wants action immediately.
Pawlenty said the committee needs to increase the $551 million spending authority already given MnDOT to take into account expected federal funds to replace the collapsed bridge.
Short of legislative leaders' approval to change the transportation budget, Pawlenty said that he is looking into whether he can make the move to accept and spend federal money on his own. However, he added, it is not clear he can do that without legislative approval.
Top DFL lawmakers probably will decide whether those at the Monday meeting will grant Pawlenty's request.
"It's a situation that I can't call myself," said Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, a committee member. "The decision's going to be made by leadership, let's put it that way."
State Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.