The eight-member Transportation Contingent Appropriation Group gave the Minnesota Department of Transportation an extra $60 million in spending authority, even though the Pawlenty administration had asked for $195 million.
DFL House Speaker Margaret Kelliher says that means MnDOT can move forward with construction of the I-35W bridge without delaying other road and bridge projects. Kelliher said the panel authorized less money because the entire Legislature, not a small group, should make decisions on MnDOT's spending authority.
"What the department wanted was a bailout through the end of fiscal year '08, and we're not willing to do that on behalf of the whole Legislature," Kelliher said. "It's really clear to us that the entire Legislature should be included in this decision-making."
Kelliher said she's willing to authorize a greater amount of spending authority if more money is needed.
“What the department wanted was a bailout through the end of fiscal year '08, and we're not willing to do that on behalf of the whole Legislature.”DFL House Speaker Margaret Kelliher
Without the full $195 million, MnDOT officials argued that they would have to cut some scheduled transportation projects. But some lawmakers are skeptical. They argued that MnDOT doesn't need the full amount immediately.
Over the past month, MnDOT officials told lawmakers the agency would run out of money at the end of next year -- regardless of the total authorization. MnDOT officials also said they would need $145 million -- not the full $195 million -- to build the I-35W bridge and continue all of the other scheduled projects.
Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau said $60 million in spending authority is not enough. Molnau, who also serves as lieutenant governor, would not rule out cutting other projects.
"This actually gives us authority to spend a certain amount of money, with no guarantee that there will be dollars available for the remainder of the projects," said Molnau. "So we have to take that into consideration, and we will be working with our districts across the state to determine what that really means for project lettings."
Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman was much harsher. In a statement, Brian McClung said the decision leaves $85 million in transportation projects hanging in the balance. McClung said the administration will renew its request for increased spending authority before the panel meets again in November.
State Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson had a rosier outlook on the committee's action.
"I think $60 million is better than nothing," Hanson said.
Hanson had been lobbying the Legislature since August to authorize the extra money for the bridge.
The action was necessary because $250 million in promised federal funding has not come through. The federal government has appropriated $55 million so far, but the rest has been tied up in budget negotiations.
The dispute over transportation funding also sets up a 2008 showdown between the DFL-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Pawlenty.
Pawlenty vetoed two transportation funding bills over the past three years. After the Aug. 1 bridge collapse, Pawlenty said he would support a gas tax increase, but he and lawmakers were unable to agree on a plan.
Speaker Kelliher said the full Legislature will take up the issue again when lawmakers return in February. She said they may try again to override Pawlenty's veto of the transportation bill, which includes a gas tax hike and other tax increases.