Special session likely for dual disasters

Special session likely
Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders are closer to agreement on an agenda for a special session this fall. The agenda would include measures to address the I-35W bridge collapse and the recent flooding in southeastern Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Gov. Pawlenty and legislative leaders met behind closed doors for more than two hours to discuss a special session.

Two disasters -- the I-35W bridge collapse on Aug. 1 and this week's flooding in southeastern Minnesota -- have fueled calls for a special session. But there are demands that lawmakers deal with other issues as well, such as funding for local governments.

After the meeting, Pawlenty said it's likely that he will call a special session. But he said it depends on reaching agreement on the agenda with leaders in the DFL-dominated House and Senate.

Bent bridge
Wreckage of the I-35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen

"I've asked the legislative leaders to come together and reach some understanding so we could set a date and move forward with the special session," said Pawlenty. "While there are still some details to be worked out, I think it's headed in the right direction."

Only the governor can call lawmakers back into a special session, but lawmakers can stay in session as long as they want. That's why Pawlenty would like to see some sort of agreement on the agenda before he calls one.

Pawlenty said he wants the special session to focus on flood relief in southeastern Minnesota, and the I-35W bridge repair. He also said the state can justify a program of borrowing to fund bridge repair and flood relief.

Pawlenty said he would also be open to a tax bill that provides increased aid to local governments, and a comprehensive transportation package that could include a gas tax increase.

DFL leaders were tight-lipped after the meeting. They offered only a brief statement to reporters and did not answer questions.

"Minnesotans are waiting on us, and we want to get to business here."

DFL House Speaker Margaret Kelliher and DFL Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark would only say they want the governor to call a special session soon.

"We think Minnesotans are waiting on us and we want to get to business here, so we think that we have worked on that very hard this afternoon," said Kelliher.

"We're ready for the governor to call us back," added Clark.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said some of the key sticking points are focused on what should be considered in the session. Seifert said he would prefer to see lawmakers agree to limit the special session to a few items like flood relief and bridge repair before a session is called.

"Where I'm coming from -- and my caucus -- is we take care of needs, and wants can wait until February. Needs are special session and wants are for later," said Seifert. "If you want a special session to be speedy, don't be greedy."

Seifert said he's not sure whether a major transportation package should be included in a special session. Whether to increase the gas tax is a key point of friction.

Pawlenty has long opposed a gas tax hike. Immediately after the Aug. 1 bridge collapse, the governor said he would reverse that stance. But recently he has said he would prefer a temporary gas tax increase.

That is unacceptable to some state lawmakers. Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, is the chair of the Transportation Committee. He held a joint House/Senate hearing to discuss the I-35W bridge reconstruction.

Murphy said the debate over whether a special session is needed to pass a comprehensive transportation package should be over.

"If we don't need a special session now, we don't need a regular session next year or the year after that or the year after that," said Murphy. "We can just take the keys, throw them out in the streets, leave the lights on and pretend that is everything is OK. Everything is not OK."

Gov. Pawlenty says he hopes to meet again with legislative leaders in a few days. He said a special session could happen in mid-September.

Meantime, legislative committees continue to look into the causes of the bridge collapse and MnDOT spending issues.

A legislative panel met with Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles Wednesday to request an update of a 1997 report.

That report -- now 10 years old -- highlighted a growing number of structurally deficient bridges and a lack of preventative maintenance.

"I look upon that 1997 report as a real warning to MnDOT and the Legislature that we needed to do more than we were doing," said Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles. "Unfortunately, the situation only got worse, traffic got heavier and resources just weren't adequate to keep up."

Nobles added that the bridge collapse didn't come as too much of a suprise.

"Obviously there wasn't knowledge to know exactly when or where, but we knew that we were falling behind with bridge maintenance. And exactly what the consequences would be, we didn't know," said Nobles. "And obviously, people at MnDOT didn't know or we would have done everything possible to prevent this I'm sure."

Nobles says the new report should be complete by the start of the 2008 legislative session in February.