Special interests pressure Pawlenty to relent on special session

Glen Johnson
Glen Johnson of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Union leaders say funding the state's backlog of road and bridge projects is the right thing to do. They want Gov. Pawlenty to call a special session soon to address what they describe as a transportation funding crisis.

"What's it going to take governor?" said Glen Johnson of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. "How big of a tragedy will it take for you to open your eyes to this urgent problem?" When it comes to deteriorating infrastructure, Rick Krueger of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance says the 35W collapse is just the tip of the iceberg. Krueger say he thinks the public will support a gas tax increase to repair roads and bridges.

"There's no question we have to invest," he said. "And the bottom line is that we ought to be investing in transportation infrastructure as though our lives depended on it. Because the fact of the matter is our lives do depend on transportation infrastructure."

Another key lobbying group was also at the Capitol pushing for a gas tax increase on Wednesday. The Association of Minnesota Counties outlined a new transportation proposal that looks a lot like one Gov. Pawlenty vetoed earlier this year.

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Close to a deal?
Gov. Tim Pawlenty told reporters he's working on an agreement for a special session. He made his comments after another tour of the flood-damaged sections of southeastern Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The AMC plan includes a five-cents-per-gallon increase in the gas tax, additional state bonding and a metro-area sales tax increase for transit.

Cook County Commissioner Bob Fenwick, president of the AMC, says the state's needs are urgent, but a special session is not necessary.

"My heart tells me that the solution to this is long-range vision and leadership," he said. "It is not a quick fix that can happen in a special session."

Gov. Pawlenty has been talking about the need for a special session since shortly after the 35W bridge collapsed on August 1. He even backed off his earlier opposition to a gas tax increase as a way to fund transportation projects. More special session talk followed last month's flash flooding in Southeastern Minnesota.

Bob Fenwick
Cook County Commissioner Bob Fenwick, president of the Association of Minnesota Counties.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

But Pawlenty sent a letter to DFL legislative leaders this week suggesting state funding for the bridge reconstruction and flood relief could wait until the regular session in February.

Gov. Pawlenty says he will release his plans to free up money to help those in southeastern Minnesota on Friday, but still hopes he can reach agreement with lawmakers to call a special session.

After a return trip from the flood area, Pawlenty said on Wednesday that he would announce his executive actions on Friday but didn't give too many details.

"I think one would be helpful," he said. "I'd like to have one focused on flood relief and given the letter from legislative leaders yesterday, it seems like they're now willing also to focus on flood relief and I think that we're now willing to come together on that theme and need and get an agreement."

Pawlenty also says a special session should include money for emergency bridge and road repairs. He said a more comprehensive transportation funding package may have to wait until next year.

In the DFL letter to the governor, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said they remain committed to a comprehensive transportation package. But to avoid a veto, they agreed to limit a special session agenda to flood relief and the 35W bridge.

Pogemiller says he's frustrated by the what he sees as the governor's indecisiveness.

"If he wants a special session, which he twice told us he needed and wanted and we agreed to do, then he should call a special session," he said. "If he doesn't need one or want one, then he should move on."